Washington -- Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg is now supporting a delay of the Feb. 17 digital TV transition in a quick turnaround brought on by assurances from Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) that postponement won't last more than 115 days.
Seidenberg announced his decision Friday in a letter to the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate Commerce committees after discussing with Rockefeller his bill to extend the transition to Friday, June 12. Four days before, Seidenberg said a delay would be disruptive and confusing to consumers.
"I had the opportunity to speak with chairman Rockefeller today [Jan. 16], and he strongly set out his view that this limited extension would be the only delay in the transition," Seidenberg said. "Events since Monday [Jan. 12] have reduced the danger of repeated delay and Verizon, as a result, can support a carefully limited extension of the deadline."
Seidenberg said his new support for delay was also based on promises from Obama transition team co-chair John Podesta that the incoming administration wanted a delay of only "limited and specific duration," mostly designed to eliminate problems with the Commerce Department's $1.34 billion DTV converter box coupon program.
"Because of these important developments, Verizon agrees that a one-time delay from February 17 to June 12, as reflected in Sen. Rockefeller's draft Bill, is appropriate," Seidenberg said.
On Jan. 16, Rockefeller tried to get his bill passed by unanimous consent, an expedited procedure that takes just one senator to disrupt. Unnamed Senate Republicans blocked Rockefeller's attempt, a Senate source said.
In addition to Rockefeller, Seidenberg's letter went to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) ranking member of the Commerce Committee; House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif); and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Although Waxman is supporting the June 12 date with his own legislation, Hutchison and Barton have expressed support for going forward on Feb. 17.
Last year, Verizon paid $9.63 billion in a Federal Communications Commission spectrum auction, but the company can't use the airwaves because they are occupied by analog TV stations. After the DTV transition, Verizon plans to use the vacated TV channels to roll out the next generation in high-speed wireless Internet access, also called 4G.
"Delaying the DTV transition will delay our ability to upgrade those frequencies to 4G broadband for American consumers and have a negative impact on our nation's international competitiveness," Seidenberg told the same House and Senate committee leaders in a letter last Monday protesting any delay in the DTV transition.
In his letter Friday, Seidenberg stressed the need to end the transition on June 12.
"Any further delay would harm the nation's economy and broadband future, as I noted in my letter earlier this week," Seidenberg said.
Last week, AT&T, which spent about $7 billion in the same FCC auction, said it could support a brief delay.
"From AT&T's perspective, a smooth transition from analog broadcast transmission to digital is in the public interest and will ultimately inure to the benefit of all Americans," AT&T senior executive vice president James Cicconi said in letter to House and Senate Commerce Committee leaders.
The incoming Obama administration is concerned about problems with the converter box coupon program and the lack of preparation for the DTV transition by poor, elderly and rural Americans.
Although the coupon program has about $620 million to spend, about 2 million coupon requests are on hold owing to a federal budget law that bans the Commerce from mailing new coupons before a batch of old ones has expired.
In 2006, President Bush signed the law that established Feb. 17 as the date when all 1,750 full-power TV stations had to stop beaming analog signals. Analog TVs still in use in million of homes each need a digital-to-analog converter box to watch digital TV signals with an antenna.
Last week, the House Appropriations Committee released details of an $825 billion stimulus package, which included $650 million for Commerce's coupon program.
In his letter, Cicconi said AT&T deserved compensation for the time it couldn't exploit the wireless broadband licenses.
"So long as the legitimate interests of licensees are addressed, AT&T will support one-time, limited extension of the current cutoff date," Cicconi said.