Now that the Commerce Department has run out of money for the coupon program for the converter boxes that some Americans will need to keep their TVs working once broadcasters switch off their analog signals next month, a new wave of panic about the nation’s preparedness is rippling through Washington.
Add to the ranks of the concerned President-elect Obama, who is calling on Congress to extend the deadline of Feb. 17 that is mandated by law.
In a letter to leaders in the House and Senate, Obama aide John Podesta asked for legislation to delay the transition to ensure that call centers are adequately staffed and all Americans who want coupons for converter boxes receive them before their signals go dark.
In response, Ed Markey, the outgoing chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said it was worth considering Obama’s request, but that a delay would “entail significant logistical challenges.”
Markey is planning to introduce legislation to fund the coupon program, administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and help the agency clear the backlog.
For more than a year, the Federal Communications Commission, broadcasters and news organizations have been running advertisements and service-oriented news stories aimed at etching the date of Feb. 17, 2009 into TV viewers’ minds. In a recent speech, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin expressed his concern that pushing the date back would cause confusion among consumers, and said he hoped Congress would act quickly to get the coupon program back on track.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, said he saw no problem with pushing the date back.
Obama’s call for a delay will no doubt spur Congress to reexamine the issue, but support is by no means unanimous. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, a ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, echoed Martin’s concerns.
“I am concerned about moving the date of the upcoming digital television transition,” Hutchison said in a statement. “We need to focus on a solution to the coupon shortage. Shifting the date this close to the transition, without a sound plan to share information about the new transition date, will likely result in significant confusion.”
The DTV transition isn’t just about people with analog TVs and rabbit-ears antennas losing their signals. Last March, the FCC sold the spectrum that broadcasters will vacate when they move to the all-digital format at an auction that raised nearly $20 billion. The major winners, Verizon Wireless and AT&T, plan to use that spectrum to build out their 4G wireless networks using the LTE (long-term evolution) standard. With the first waves of those build-outs scheduled to conclude this year, a delay in the DTV transition could be a significant setback for the nation’s two largest wireless carriers as they try to fend off the 4G threat from the Sprint and the WiMAX camp.