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Dingell Dangles DTV Delay

U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) dropped some heavy-handed hints this week he might favor delaying the digital television (DTV) if over-the-air (OTA) viewers don't get a bigger end of the digital stick.

Speaking before the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), Dingell, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the broadcasters he has serious concerns about the subsidy program to help OTA viewers buy digital converter boxes.

"I'm detecting limited appreciation in certain quarters for the complexity and sensitivity of the transition," Dingell said. "The DTV hard date became law more than a year ago. Yet we still have no details of the converter box program to assist disenfranchised American households."

After Feb. 17, 2009, television sets must have digital tuners or a digital converter box to receive digital signals. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) estimates 20 million (17 percent) out of approximately 115 U.S. households rely exclusively on free OTA broadcasting.

After his speech, Dingell told reporters he is taking a wait-and-see approach to whether the DTV transition date should be delayed. Last year, Congress approved the DTV hard transition date and authorized the Bush administration up to $1.5 billion for a converter box subsidy program.

If Dingell manages to delay the DTV hard date, it would unravel a complex plan to move broadcasters out of their analog spectrum. Portions of the vacated airwaves would be given to first responders, and the rest would be auctioned off by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to providers of next generation wireless providers. The FCC auction is estimated to bring in as much as $10 billion.

"By law, the coupon program starts in 10 months. We don't yet have technical standards for the boxes. We don't know when the boxes will be ready," Dingell said. "We don't know how much personal information consumers must disclose on the application. We don't know whether retailers will maintain an adequate supply of boxes."

The NTIA has initially proposed a program that will offer one $40 coupon per TV per household (with a max of two coupons per household) for converter boxes estimated to cost $60. The coupons can't be combined for the purchase of a single converter box. Under the plan, consumers will have to make an "affirmative request" to receive the coupons.

Dingell called the subsidy program "underfunded and unfriendly" to consumers.

"Based on the initial proposal from NTIA, the Administration appears to view this program as little more than an unwelcome homework assignment," Dingell said. "Their initial notice showed a shocking ignorance of the Congressional debate. It's going to be no small task to guide the public through the transition without cutting off millions of Americans from a vital source of local news and information."

Dingell also criticized the public education funding for the transition, which is currently capped at $5 million. A recent NAB survey revealed that 56 percent of respondents said they have "seen, read or heard nothing" about the DTV transition. Only 10 percent knew the transition would occur in 2009.

"As you must recognize, this effort will require much more than that," he told the broadcasters. "Five million dollars won't even buy two 30-second Super Bowl spots.

Jason Oxman, vice president of communications for the Consumers Electronic Association (CEA), told internetnews.com in an e-mail statement that a delay would send ripples through the economy.

"The CEA has worked with Chairman Dingell to ensure he understands that technology companies, manufacturers, broadcasters and related sectors have already invested substantially in irreversibly revising their businesses to prepare for the Feb. 17, 2009, transition date," Oxman said.

"We believe members of Congress understand that any change to that date would not only be economically destructive, it would also risk denying all Americans the benefits of digital television."

In a press conference earlier this week, the NAB, NTIA, CEA, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and other groups announced the formation of the DTV Transition Coalition and pledged to support a consumer education campaign to increase awareness of the DTV transition.

"Over 90 percent of local broadcasters have completed the transition and are already broadcasting in digital, but the public has a longer way to go," Jonathan Collegio, the NAB's vice president of digital television, said.