When all else fails, spin out a conspiracy theory. That seemed to be the strategy of Republicans Feb. 4 as they unsuccessfully fought to keep the digital television switch "hard deadline" of Feb. 17 from moving to June 12.
Late in the debate, after the Republicans had all objections to moving the deadline swatted down by Democrats who were going to delay the DTV switch no matter what, the GOP reached deep into an empty strategy bag and hinted at a dark conspiracy between President Obama and Clearwire to stick it to Verizon in particular and wireless carriers committed to LTE (Long Term Evolution) in general.
Clearwire, of course, is betting on WiMax for its next generation of wireless technology and has already launched WiMax networks in Baltimore and in Portland, Ore. Verizon and AT&T have placed their money on LTE, but can't launch their advanced networks until the television stations move out of the 700MHz spectrum. Verizon paid $9.4 billion in the 2008 auction of 700MHz spectrum to get its hands on the space.
The GOP conspiracy theory goes like this: After Obama was elected, Clearwire executive Gerry Salemme very quietly joined Obama's transition team. His job? To advise the new president on the DTV switch. Shortly after Salemme joined the Obama transition, the team announced that there were "major difficulties" in the digital TV transition planning and the deadline should be bumped forward to June 12.
Most of the problems, according to Obama and Democrats in both the House and the Senate, centered around an NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) report claiming funding for the $1.34 billion digital converter box coupon program was about to run out.
"With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient, and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date," John Podesta said in a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Republicans thought otherwise and pointed to Salemme, citing an Ars Technica story that "brought to light the question of whether President Obama's telecommunications policy, specifically the digital television transition, is being influenced by an industry insider." Salemme, it was suggested, may have used his access and influence to give Clearwire a four-month lead on Verizon in rolling out 4G wireless services.
The Ars reporting did, indeed, suggest just that, but added in a follow-up, "None of this necessarily means there's anything nefarious afoot; there are strong policy arguments on both sides of the DTV delay question."
It should also be noted that Verizon, after first strongly objecting to a DTV delay, ultimately said it was OK with the delay, as did AT&T.
"If you gained access to the 700MHz spectrum, you knew the risks of a possible delay," a telecommunications executive told eWEEK. "Besides, I don't think a four-month delay really harms Verizon at all. When they roll it out, Verizon will be a force to deal with. It doesn't matter if it's in February or June."
The executive failed to mention another important aspect of the Clearwire conspiracy: At the rate Clearwire is rolling out WiMax, it has no clear lead on anybody.
Nevertheless, you can't beat a good conspiracy theory.
"As you can see," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "the impetus for the delay is potentially more complex and controversial than simply an underfunded government coupon distribution program."