Rockefeller Working DTV Delay Bill


Washington—Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) spent Tuesday trying to assemble a bill designed to delay the Feb. 17 digital TV transition and provide new funds for the Commerce Department's hobbled converter box coupon program.

"All I know is that Senate staffers are working overtime to try and find the right solutions— all options on the table," a Senate source said Tuesday evening.

Rockefeller supports moving the Feb. 17 deadline, perhaps by about 90 days, to give at-risk groups more time to prepare their television sets for all-digital broadcasting.

Last week, Obama transition team co-chair John Podesta called on Congress to consider postponing the DTV transition deadline, claiming too many poor, elderly and rural Americans would be left behind.

Like Rockefeller, Podesta complained about the Commerce Department's management of the $1.34 billion converter box coupon program.

"It has gone broke," said Tom Wheeler, who is participating in an Obama transition working group responsible for the science, technology, space and arts agencies.

Each household was allowed to request two $40 coupons, which could be used to reduce the cost of $60-$80 converter boxes that prolong the useful life of old analog TV sets.

Wheeler indicated that he recommended delaying the transition to Podesta.

"It came to my desk," he said in a C-SPAN interview.

Actually, the coupon program hasn't run out of money, a point emphasized last week by Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), the most senior Republican on the House, who accused the incoming of Obama administration of panicking for no reason.

Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration has at least $600 million to spend. But a federal budget law won't allow NTIA to mail out new coupons until old ones have expired. That caused NTIA to create a waiting list for at least 1.3 million coupons.

The coupon backlog coming just a few weeks before the transition prompted Rockefeller to say that NTIA had "appallingly mismanaged" the program.

In addition to delaying the DTV transition, Rockefeller is considering whether to waive the budget law, called the Antideficiency Act, to allow NTIA to clear out the waiting list immediately.

Also under consideration: addition funds for the Public Broadcasting Service, which might need money to keep analog and digital transmitters active after Feb. 17.

Rockefeller also has before him a request from public safety organizations to require analog TV stations to shut down on Feb. 17 if they are using channels that Congress has already earmarked for police, fire and emergency crews for a national wireless broadband network that has total interoperability—something sorely lacking on 9/11 at the World Trade Center.