President-elect Barack Obama isn't playing it very cool when it comes to the digital television transition. No sooner had the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced that funding for the $1.34 billion digital converter box coupon program had been temporarily exhausted than Obama called for a delay in the Feb. 17 deadline for television stations to begin exclusively broadcasting in digital format.
"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, co-chair of the Obama transition group, said in a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (PDF)
Then Podesta blamed the Republicans for bungling the whole affair, although Democrats have held the power in Congress for the last two years.
This approach would be politics as usual, not change. Congress has already delayed the transition once, which will clear analog airwaves for first responders and for the introduction of advanced services such as wireless broadband. In fact, the spectrum being deserted by broadcasters has already been sold for nearly $20 billion.
Delaying the transition again would send all the wrong signals that the government is actually serious about making the transition happen. Obama is rightly concerned that some consumers may wake up Feb. 18 and have no television service. Concern is one thing, delaying a digital transition that more than 90 percent of Americans are already prepared for is another.
According to a Nielsen survey conducted a year ago, 14.3 million U.S. households rely solely on over-the-air broadcasts. They need to buy a digital television set, connect to a cable or satellite service, or purchase a digital converter box by Feb. 17 to avoid a cut-off in service.
The NTIA said 12.6 million of those 14.3 million households have requested coupons from the government subsidy program that will provide two coupons worth $40 each toward the purchase of a digital converter box. Perhaps the remaining 1.7 million households that solely rely on over-the-air broadcasts and are directly affected by the transition bought a new television set or subscribed to cable or satellite services. Perhaps they didn't.
What we do know is this: You don't have to have a coupon to buy a $40 converter box. We also know this: The vast majority of Americans who are not affected by the transition ordered coupons by the gross. As of Jan. 4, more than 24 million households have requested approximately 46 million coupons with about 18 million coupons actually having been redeemed. To date, 52.5 percent of coupons requested have been redeemed and more than 13 million coupons have expired.
Congress can solve this problem promptly without any delay in the transition by authorizing more funds for coupons or simply changing the rules by exempting the coupon program from federal laws prohibiting the government from incurring expenses in excess of amounts available in appropriations or funds. With voters' television service at stake, Congress is likely to act.
As outgoing FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said at the Consumer Electronics Show held Jan. 8 to 11, "There are options [for things Congress] can do without having to delay [the transition] to get coupons flowing immediately. I'm concerned about a delay in the sense that if you can solve that issue other ways, a delay has actually the potential to confuse consumers. All of our messaging has been about Feb. 17 -- not just ours, the industry's."
Obama is also concerned that support such as help desk centers for the transition is lacking. Yet the Federal Communications Commission on Jan. 6 said it has selected 12 grass-roots organizations and local agencies to help over-the-air viewers prepare for the digital transition, and has thrown in $8.4 million for public outreach. Broadcasters have already spent more than $1 billion on public education about the transition.
The transition has been more than decade in the making. The time is now.