Consumer Group Seeks DTV Delay

The Consumers Union urges Congress to delay the Feb. 17 shift from analog to digital television broadcasting until more funding is made available for a federal digital converter box subsidy program. Run by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the government subsidy program has exhausted the $1.34 billion designated for households that rely solely on over-the-air broadcasts.

With just 39 days left before television stations begin broadcasting in digital, the Consumers Union urged Congress Jan. 7 to delay the transition from analog to digital until more funds are made available in the federal coupon program created to offset the costs of digital converter boxes.

The Consumer Union's letter to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, came just days after the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) announced that funding for the $1.34 billion digital converter box coupon program has been exhausted, at least for now.

The NTIA said consumers still seeking a coupon would be placed on a waiting list as expired, but unredeemed, coupons become available. Digital converter boxes are only needed for televisions not connected to cable and satellite services. According to a Nielsen Company survey conducted a year ago, 14.3 million U.S. households rely soleley on over-the-air broadcasts. The NTIA said, based on consumer self-reporting, 12.6 million households that rely on over-the-air television have requested coupons.

"The federal government is getting $19 billion from selling the analog TV spectrum, while people with analog TVs have to go out and spend their own money for a converter box," Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union, said in a statement. "Everyone affected by the digital switch should be able to get their $40 coupons. Congress needs to consider delaying the transition until these problems are fixed."

Also weighing in on the Feb. 17 digital transition was Paula Kerger, president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting System, who told television critics in Hollywood that the lack of digital converter coupons was "inexcusable. Consumers need those coupons, and they need them now."

Markey predicted Dec. 24, "it is becoming increasingly clear that at minimum Congress may need to quickly pass additional funding for the converter box program in early January to prevent any delay in coupon availability or issuance."

Even as Markey and other lawmakers work to free up more money for the coupon program, a Markey spokesperson told Broadcasting and Cable, "With the date looming, moving the date back certainly warrants further discussion and may be a wise choice."

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, urged Congress to stay the course for the digital conversion.

"I encourage Congress and the new administration to continue down the successful path we are currently traveling," Shapiro said in a statement. "Focus should be on ensuring that NTIA can quickly distribute coupons that are currently held up by bureaucratic accounting rules. The facts clearly support maintaining the hard date of Feb. 17. Any delay to the transition date would cause massive confusion among the more than 90 percent of Americans who have already taken the necessary steps to prepare."

The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 requires full-power television stations to cease analog broadcasts and switch to digital after Feb. 17. The Act authorized NTIA to create the TV Converter Box Coupon Program, which is funded from the proceeds of the 700MHz auction held in 2008.

The analog airwaves being deserted by broadcasters will be used by first responders and for advanced wireless services such as the delivery of third- and fourth-generation wireless broadband.