The Feb. 17 deadline for television stations to switch to digital broadcasting would be moved to June 12 under legislation introduced Jan. 15 by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
"President-elect Obama has asked Congress to delay the date of the transition," Rockefeller said in a statement. "Over two million Americans are waiting to receive a coupon to help them offset the cost of equipment that will help them manage the transition - millions more don't have the proper information they need."
The NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) announced Jan. 5 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.
Following the NTIA announcement, 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.
"I am especially concerned because this transition is going to hit our most vulnerable citizens-the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and those with language barriers-the hardest," Rockefeller said. "Rural communities that rely on over-the-air television will be especially impacted. We risk leaving those who are most reliant on over-the-air broadcast television for their information literally in the dark, and I'm fighting to see that this does not occur."
Rockefeller added that despite high awareness of the DTV switch, a recent Consumer Report survey found that among Americans aware of the transition, 63 percent had major misconceptions about what steps they need to take to prepare. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) expects to receive almost 1.5 million calls on the days immediately following the transition but at current capacity their call center will be able to process only 350,000 of those calls each day.
According to Rockefeller, the delay to June 12 would also give Congress time to fix the DTV converter box coupon program. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 introduced in the House Jan. 15 includes an additional $650 million for more digital converter box coupons.
"It did not have to be this way. This is why today I have introduced a bill to delay the date of the DTV transition to June 12, 2009. I firmly believe that our nation is not yet ready to make this transition," Rockefeller said.
Despite Obama's call for a DTV transition delay, lawmakers in the U.S. House have yet to introduce legislation accommodating the president-elect.
"No one said this was going to be easy, but we have unquestionably made the right decision to complete the digital television transition on February 17, 2009," House Republicans wrote Obama Jan. 14. "We believe that panicky talk of a delay is breeding stultifying uncertainty, and that an actual delay would be a monumental error in judgment that would damage the program and the public."
House Republicans said the DTV coupon subsidy program is not about to run out of money."It has not and we assure you that we are going to everything necessary to help remaining consumers prepare," the letter to Obama stated. "We are working on bipartisan legislation that would allow the government to issue a responsible number of additional coupons even before circulating coupons expire."
Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, though, are rumored to have concluded that there is not enough time to answer the almost 2 million requests now on a government waiting list and are working on legislation to move the deadline.