DTV delay would slow wireless plans

Remember that big spectrum auction last March? The one where Verizon Wireless, AT&T and a slew of other providers ponied up $19.6 billion for a coveted swath of the airwaves so they could steam ahead with their plans for building out advanced wireless networks?

Well, hurry up and wait, because those airwaves aren’t going to be available until television broadcasters switch to an all-digital format, and a plan to delay the transition is gaining momentum in the Senate.

By law, the date for the DTV transition was set for Feb. 17. But with less than a month to go, there is growing concern among lawmakers and regulators that millions of Americans won’t be ready. And millions of Americans with no TV service is not a recipe for building political capital.

The leadership of the Senate committee considering legislation to delay the transition until June 12 today announced that it had reached a bipartisan compromise on the bill that removes some of the provisions that the panel’s ranking Republican had objected to.

But a DTV delay, which has drawn support from President Obama, has rankled the wireless industry. The companies that spent billions on the spectrum at last year’s auction would have to postpone their plans to expand their networks. In the case of Verizon and AT&T, companies looking ahead to lightning-fast 4G networks, it would certainly be a setback.

CTIA, the trade association representing wireless industry, has lashed out at the idea of a delay.

“We are concerned that a delay of the transition date could postpone investment in and deployment of broadband wireless services and decrease confidence in the auction model for spectrum allocation that has generated billions for the U.S. Treasury,” Joe Farren, a spokesman for the organization, said in a recent statement. “In the midst of the current economic struggle, these are important considerations.”

The principal concern over moving ahead with the transition in February involves a government program to provide people with coupons for the converter boxes they will need to keep analog TVs that receive signals over the air working. The agency administering the program ran out of money for the $40 coupons, and many people have complained that their coupons expired before they were able to redeem them.

The bill would provide accommodations for people whose couldn’t redeem their coupons due to natural disasters or delays in mail service or natural disasters, or because retailers ran out of inventory.

The economic stimulus bill being debated in the House would allocated $650 million to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to fund the coupon program.

A House committee was scheduled to consider a bill to delay the DTV transition this week, but postponed the hearing to an unspecified date.

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