House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) Monday criticized key portions of the Bush administration's $1.5 billion program to help millions of consumers fund the purchase of converter boxes that will keep analog-TV sets working after the termination of analog TV in early 2009.
Dingell was upset because the Commerce Department's rules would disqualify cable- and satellite-TV homes from seeking financial assistance if the 15-month program spends more than $990 million. Only homes that rely exclusively on free, over-the-air-television could seek any of the remaining $510 million.
"After the administration opposed Democratic efforts to secure sufficient funding in favor of more tax cuts, the administration now shows newfound concern that not all households will be covered," Dingell said in a prepared statement. "If the administration believes additional funds are needed to prevent consumers' television sets from going dark, then it should ask the Congress for such funding."
The Commerce Department's rules were announced by Assistant Secretary for Communication and Information John Kneuer.
The analog-TV cutoff is to occur by law on Feb. 17, 2009. Under law, Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, also headed by Kneuer, had to come up with consumer eligibility rules, which would determine who could apply for two $40 coupons beginning in January 2008
Although the program can fund about 33 million boxes (after all administrative costs), U.S. TV households have about 73 million analog-TV sets that rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcast TV, with about 45 million analog TVs in the 20 million homes that don't subscribe to cable or satellite TV.
Dingell and other House Democrats have been concerned that the digital-TV-transition plan passed last year by a Republican-controlled Congress failed to provide enough money to ensure a smooth transition to digital-only broadcasting.
"The proposed [NTIA] plan arbitrarily limits consumer eligibility for the program after the first $990 million is spent. This is likely to increase consumer confusion about who is eligible for coupons and when they are eligible," said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) chairman of the House Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, in a prepared statement.
Markey said he would soon hold hearings on the NTIA's rules.