Washington—A group of House Republicans is balking at President-elect Obama's effort to delay the conversion to all-digital broadcasting on Feb. 17, claiming the incoming administration is panicking based on false information about the readiness of the nation.
Obama's transition team wants Congress to enact a delay based partly on problems with the Commerce Department's $1.34 billion program to provide $40 coupons for consumer purchase of digital-to-to-analog converter boxes.
Fifteen House Republicans, led by Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), sent Obama a letter Wednesday calling on him to let the transition happen as planned under a law signed by President Bush in 2006. Barton is the most senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"We believe that panicky talk of a delay is breeding stultifying uncertainty, and that an actual delay would be a monumental error in judgment that would damage the program and the public," the lawmakers said.
The House Republicans said that talk about delaying the transition has started to create problems.
"Industry groups are nervously withdrawing from what had been vigorous consumer education efforts," they said.
Members of National Association Broadcasters and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association put up the equivalent of $1.2 billion in airtime for public service announcements promoting the Feb. 17 date. NCTA began withdrawing ads last fall, anticipating a potential delay.
The coupon program, which has at least $600 million to spend, has run into trouble because a federal budget law won't allow Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration to mail out new coupons until old ones have expired. NTIA had created a waiting that now includes requests for 2 million coupons.
The House Republicans told Obama that they hoped the effort to delay the transition wasn't based "on the false premise that the coupon program has or is about to run out of money. It has not, and we assure you that we are going to do everything necessary to help remaining consumers prepare."
News about delaying the transition might actually cause consumers not to apply for coupons, the House Republicans said.
"There's rising fear that consumers may be refraining from requesting coupons because they have read the program is broke and that the switch is off," the lawmakers said.
Another problem for the House Republicans: Delaying the transition will prevent public safety organizations from using old analog TV spectrum to build a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network, as recommended by the 9/11 commission.
"A sudden, last-minute delay in the transition means postponing the vast public safety improvements that are and finally within our grasp," they said.
Last week, Obama transition co-chair John Podesta, in defending the need for a delay, said too many poor, elderly and rural Americans were unprepared for the loss of analog TV signals.
Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) agreed and is working on legislation to carry out the Obama-requested delay.
In their letter, the House Republicans said 93% of U.S. households were ready for the transition, citing Nielsen Co. data.
"No one said this was going to be easy, but we have unquestionably made the right decision to complete the digital television transition on Feb. 17," the House GOP members said.