Obama Wants Digital TV Transition Delay

President-elect Barack Obama tells lawmakers the lack of funding for a digital converter box subsidy program combined with inadequate support funding should prompt Congress to delay the Feb. 17 digital television transition deadline.

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President-elect Barack Obama's transition team told lawmakers Jan. 8 Congress should delay the Feb. 17 transition date for television stations to begin exclusively broadcasting in digital. John Podesta, co-chair of the Obama transition group, said there have been "major difficulties" in the digital TV transition planning.

The NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) announced earlier the week of Jan. 5 that funding for the $1.34 billion digital converter box coupon program has been exhausted. The program allows for two $40 coupons per household to help outset the cost of digital converter boxes for non-digital television sets.

Consumers still seeking a coupon will be placed on a waiting list, as expired but unredeemed coupons become available. Consumers with digital television sets or televisions connected to cable or satellite boxes will not be affected by the transition.

The Consumers Union seeks a delay in the shift to digital broadcasting until more funding is available for the subsidy program. Click here to read more.

"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," Podesta said in a letter (PDF) to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

According to a Nielsen survey conducted a year ago, 14.3 million U.S. households rely solely 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. As of Jan. 4, though, 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.

Podesta predicted that by February the waiting list for coupons would reach 5 million.

"Coupon demand appears headed to a level that will exceed that authorized by Congress," Podesta wrote. "In addition, the government's programs to assist consumers through the upheaval of the conversion are inadequately funded."

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has been deeply involved in the transition process, responded to the Obama transition team's request by saying Congress could make an additional 8 million coupons available by passing legislation exempting the coupon program from federal laws prohibiting the government from incurring expenses in excess of amounts available in appropriations or funds.

"Moving the transition date entails significant logistical challenges," Markey said in a statement. "However, the prospect of leaving millions of consumers in the dark requires Congress to immediately consider the feasibility of the President-elect's proposal."

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, applauded the Obama initiative. "The Obama administration deserves time to bring order to what has been an appallingly mismanaged process by the Bush Administration," Rockefeller said in a statement. "I look forward to reviewing the details of the Obama administration proposal with my colleagues, and will support delaying the current date of the DTV transition until we can do it right."

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. "Moving the transition date entails significant logistical challenges," Markey said in a statement. "However, the prospect of leaving millions of consumers in the dark requires Congress to immediately consider the feasibility of the president-elect's proposal."