Washington— House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) last Tuesday took shots at the Bush administration’s oversight of the digital-TV transition, especially the pending converter-box program designed to keep millions of old analog TV sets running after early 2009, when local-TV stations will broadcast only digital signals.
Congress charged the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration with implementing the converter-box program, but the NTIA has not received permission from the Office of Management and Budget to release final rules.
“Based upon the initial proposal from NTIA, the [Bush] administration appears to view this program as little more than an unwelcome homework assignment,” said Dingell, someone known for his biting sarcasm.
Dingell is mulling whether a bill to craft a new transition scheme is needed. “This is one of the things that the committee will be looking at,” he said.
Every full-power TV station is required to cease analog transmission on Feb. 17, 2009, mandated by year-old legislation that could render millions of existing TV sets useless because they can’t display digital signals that haven’t been converted to analog.
The 2006 law, passed by a Republican-controlled Congress, included $1.5 billion to subsidize digital-to-analog converter boxes for the masses. But no one knows who is eligible to receive funding.
NTIA administrator John Kneuer, who doubles as assistant commerce secretary for communications and information, said last fall that he expected to see rules by the end of 2006.
“We are working diligently to get the final rule out very soon,” NTIA communication director Todd Sedmak said last Tuesday.
Under the DTV transition law, each household may apply for two $40 government coupons to help defray converter-box costs. Boxes are expected to cost less than $100. The NTIA would need $3 billion to provide one coupon each for the 73 million analog TVs currently not connected to cable or satellite TV.
Dingell, in a speech to about 500 members of the National Association of Broadcasters, said the program’s $1.5 billion budget wasn’t sufficient.
“It is underfunded and it is unfriendly to consumers,” Dingell said.
Last summer, NTIA proposed excluding cable- and satellite-TV homes from receiving converter coupons. It also indicated that it might limit coupon eligibility to just low-income, broadcast-only households.
That angered House Democrats, who complained to Kneuer after winning last November’s election that millions of pay TV homes have analog TV sets used just for over-the-air reception.
“Their initial notice showed rather shocking ignorance of the congressional debate and little attention to the attitude of the American people,” Dingell said.
However, Nancy Zirkin, vice president of public policy for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a group with strong Democratic ties, told Multichannel News that she is concerned that the most needy might be left out if NTIA can’t ration support.
Dingell also questioned whether the Federal Communications Commission under chairman Kevin Martin was up to the task, even though Congress hasn’t given the FCC much of an operational role.
“I have some additional and serious concerns with the FCC’s desire and ability to handle the overall transition,” Dingell said.
FCC member Robert McDowell, addressing the same NAB forum two days later, said he was optimistic that a massive public awareness campaign in late 2008 would lead to a successful transition.
“Every now and then you hear a rumbling or a rumor that Congress is going to push the deadline back,” McDowell said. “I think it would be a mistake to push back the deadline at this point. I do think we have plenty of time to get it done and get it done right.”
Dingell is concerned that a poorly managed transition would anger millions of TV-dedicated consumers who would make their displeasure felt at the polls.
“If the converter box [program] doesn’t proceed smoothly, a day of reckoning will come that will be a harsh day, a scapegoat will be found, people will be voted off the island,” Dingell said.
“It’s going to be no small task to guide the public through the transition without cutting off millions of Americans from a vital source of local news and information,” he added.
Key metrics associated with the transition are a moving target. Fifty million digital TV sets have been sold and at least another 50 million capable of receiving digital signals from TV stations are expected to be sold by the end of 2008.
So the assumption that when the analog TV cutoff happens the country will face a massive analog equipment legacy problem could turn out to be incorrect.
Citing consumer electronics industry data, NTIA believes that U.S. consumers will have purchased 115 million digital TV sets, or roughly one per household, by the end of 2008.
But it’s not clear whether or not the acquisition of digital TVs will prompt consumers to ditch their old analog sets, thereby reducing the need for converter-box subsidies.