Washington—Former Federal Communications Commission chairmen William Kennard and Michael Powell are calling on Congress to impose a short delay on the Feb. 17 national switch to digital television service, claiming a "train wreck" awaits perhaps millions of homes that lack the right equipment to make the transition.
Writing in Friday's New York Times, the former regulators made a bipartisan pitch for a delay lasting a few months, saying it would provide enough time for the new Obama administration to better prepare as many as 19 million homes that rely exclusively on free, over-the-air broadcasting.
"There is no reason to rush toward a fiasco when we could just as well take the time to make sure the change happens smoothly," Kennard (left) and Powell wrote.
The two former regulators pointed to problems in the $1.34 billion U.S. Commerce Department program to provide consumers with $40 coupons to buy digital-to-analog converter boxes, which extend the useful life of old analog TV sets. They also expressed fears that retail outlets won't have sufficient inventory to meet converter box demand.
"In 2005, Congress devised a program meant to ensure that this transition would be smooth. But with 40 days to go, it is now clear that we are heading for a train wreck—unless Congress delays the transition for a few months to allow more time to prepare," Kennard and Powell said.
Kennard, a Democrat appointed by President Clinton, was FCC chairman from November 1997 to January 2001. Powell, appointed by President Bush, held the top FCC post from January 2001 to March 2005. Kennard, a New York Times Co. director, is managing director of the Carlyle Group, and Powell (right) is a senior advisor with Providence Equity Partners.
Their article comes just one day after John Podesta, co-chair of the Obama presidential transition team, sent a letter to Capitol Hill calling on Congress to postpone the transition.
In addition to concerns about the coupon program and the supply of boxes, Podesta said the Bush administration hadn't provided the resources to protect vulnerable groups, such as the poor, the elderly and rural Americans.
"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."
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 has been "appallingly mismanaged."
In their article, Kennard and Powell argued that converter box demand could outpace supply by 4 million to 31 million units.
Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, issued a statement claiming converter boxes were in plentiful supply nationally.
“The facts clearly support maintaining the hard date of Feb. 17," Shapiro said. "Any delay to the transition date would cause massive confusion among the more than 90 percent of Americans who have already taken the necessary steps to prepare."