Washington—President-elect Barack Obama wants to delay the Feb. 17 transition to digital broadcasting, claiming poor, rural and elderly residents will be unprepared for the cutoff of analog TV signals so soon after he takes office on Jan. 20.
Obama's call for a delay, sharply criticized by one Republican who helped design the analog cutoff plan, came in a letter Thursday from the co-chairman of his transition team, John Podesta, to the bipartisan leadership of the Commerce Committees in the House and Senate.
Podesta didn't say how long the delay should last and he wasn't clear about the specific risks facing vulnerable American groups identified. His letter came just one day after Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, called for an analog cutoff delay, sharing many of Podesta's concerns about going forward just a few weeks into the new Obama administration.
Congress would have to pass a new law to move the Feb. 17 transition date, which President Bush signed into law almost three years ago, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin said Thursday.
In his letter, Podesta argued that the $1.34 billion, digital-to-analog converter box coupon program run by the U.S. Commerce Department can't issue any new coupons. That, he said, has produced a waiting list for 1 million coupons, which are worth $40 each. The coupons help defray the $40-to-$80 retail cost of each converter box needed to keep an old analog TV set running after the switch.
The Obama transition co-chief also vaguely complained that there was insufficient financial support for programs designed to help rural, poor and elderly Americans to prepare for digital TV service.
"All the above leads to the conclusion that the Feb. 17 cutoff of analog signals should be reconsider and extended," Podesta said. "With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient, and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively-mandated analog cutoff date."
An Obama transition office spokeswoman said the President-elect supported Podesta's letter.
In a statement Thursday afternoon, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) decried Obama’s suggestion, saying “ditching the deadline and slathering on more millions of taxpayer dollars...is just panic.”
Barton crafted the analog cutoff legislation in 2005 when he was chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), the most senior Republican on Senate Commerce Committee, also questioned the wisdom of moving the transition date.
“We need to focus on a solution to the coupon shortage. Shifting the date this close to the transition, without a sound plan to share information about the new transition date, will likely result in significant confusion," she said.
However, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), critical to any effort to enact a delay, strongly endorsed Podesta's request.
"I look forward to reviewing the details of the Obama Administration proposal with my colleagues, and will support delaying the current date of the DTV transition until we can do it right," he said, claiming that the coupon program was "appallingly mismanaged."
TV stations were told to turn off their analog signals because the switch to digital would free up valuable spectrum for wireless broadband providers and for advanced communications services needed to link police, fire and rescue squads around the country.
FCC Democrat Michael Copps, considered by many as Obama's pick as interim FCC chairman in a few weeks, has been pessimistic about the DTV transition for more than a year.
"More time can only help put in place the kind of consumer-focused outreach and assistance that should have been up-and-running months ago," Copps said.
The National Association of Broadcasters claims that TV stations spent the equivalent of $1 billion to educate the public about Feb. 17. National Cable & Telecommunications Association members chipped in at least another $250 million in DTV transition messaging, even though TVs hooked to cable won't be impacted by the change in technology.
The House Communications, Technology and the Internet Subcommittee is expected to hold a hearing on the coupon program as soon as next week under the panel's new chairman Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who is replacing Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.)
Markey, who is takes over as Energy Subcommittee chairman, held numerous hearings last year on the DTV transition while heading the telecommunication panel. In a statement, he didn't specifically endorse scrapping Feb. 17.
“President-elect Obama’s call to move back the digital television transition date highlights the vulnerability of millions of Americans to the impending analog signal shut-off. It also underscores the need for prompt Congressional examination of his proposal," Markey said.
Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns Fox TV stations and the Fox Network, issued a statement that appeared to support a delay if that's what needs to be done.
"News Corp. supports any efforts to ensure that the transition to digital television is a success. Our first concern is what’s best for our viewers, and we believe that the Obama-Biden Transition Team shares our concern," the company said.
ABC Television, owned by the Walt Disney Co., is endorsing Obama's delay, a company executive said Thursday.
According to the Nielsen Company, 7.8 million households, or 6.8% of total U.S. TV homes, are not prepared for the DTV transition. That means none of the TV sets in those homes can display a digital signal.
The coupon program, run by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, hasn't run out of money. It would exhaust its funding if all active coupons were redeemed.
But that's unlikely scenario because so far about half of all coupons have gone unused in the one-year lifespan of the program, which ends March 31. NTIA coupons expire after 90 days in the field.
However, a federal budget law, called the Antideficiency Act (ADA), bars NTIA from issuing new coupons until old coupons expire and replenish the program with new money. NTIA has spent about $720 million. But since the remaining $620 million is backing coupons either en route to consumers or already in their hands, NTIA has to wait for coupons to expire before mailing out new ones.
NTIA created a waiting list on Sunday, which now holds requests for 1.1 million coupons.
Boucher and Markey are working on a bill that would waive the ADA's restrictions and allow NTIA to send out 8 million coupons immediately. The bill would also require NTIA to use first class, not third class, mail to expedite delivery.
"The Congress should immediately pass legislation providing for an exemption to the Antideficiency Act," Markey said.
The bill, however, wouldn't change the Feb. 17 date, a House source said.
"That’s the right thing to do," said Barton, who is the most senior Republican on the Energy and Commerce panel.
The Feb. 17 date was contained in a highly partisan budget law passed in December 2005. Not a single Democrat in the House or Senate voted for it.
A Republican telecommunications lobbyist said he had doubts that a Democratic-controlled Congress would actually move the Feb. 17 date because doing so would require them to take the blame for a failed transition. If Feb. 17 goes badly, Democrats can blame Republicans for the mess, the lobbyist said.
"If they delay it, they own it," the lobbyist said.
Podesta in his letter endorsed an ADA waiver, but he said it wouldn't completely address the funding problem
"Coupon demand appears headed to a level that will exceed that authorized by Congress," Podesta said. Funding to assist vulnerable Americans would be included in Obama's economic stimulus plan, he added.