NTIA Chief: No DTV Plan B

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The White House’s point man on the digital-TV transition said Tuesday that the Bush administration isn’t preparing a backup plan in the event that millions of consumers lose TV reception when analog-TV service is cut off in 762 days.

“We’ve got an existing statute that defines the DTV transition, and that’s what we are working on,” said John Kneuer, director of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Last year, Congress passed a law establishing the analog-TV cutoff Feb. 17, 2009. The law included up to $1.5 billion to subsidize digital-to-analog converters. The law allows a household to obtain up to two $40 coupons to buy converters beginning Jan. 1, 2008. The converters will allow viewing of digital-TV signals on analog-TV sets.

But the $1.5 billion is sufficient to fund about one-half of the estimated 73 million analog-TV sets that rely solely on free, over-the-air broadcasting. With demand for converters potentially outstripping supply, coupled with others factors, such as the lack of consumer education, millions of consumers could wake up Feb. 18, 2009, with no functioning television as a result of federal law.

Asked if the White House had some kind of auxiliary plan to avert a massive communications cutoff, Kneuer replied that his job was to implement the new law.

“There is nothing in the statute that directs me to do anything except operationalize this program as it exists in the statute,” he added. “That’s what I’m focused on. That’s what the whole team is focused on.”

The NTIA tentatively proposed excluding pay TV homes -- which have about 28 million analog sets not connected to cable or satellite TV -- from the coupon program. But key House Democrats came down on hard on that proposal after November's election. The NTIA is attempting to issue final rules as soon as possible, perhaps by the end of the month, Kneuer said.

“As far as timing, we are rapidly wrapping up that rulemaking, and we certainly hope to have something out in the next number of weeks, rather than months,” he added.

Citing legal restrictions, Kneuer several times refused to discuss whether the NTIA’s rules would ban pay TV home participation in order to ensure that that coupons flowed to the 20 million broadcast-only homes with analog TVs. At least in one comment, he indicated opposition to broad household eligibility.

“One of the things we are certainly focused on is having a program that reaches out to those in the most need,” Kneuer said.

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