Obama Calls for DTV Delay

January 8, 2009
The president-elect has entered the DTV fray, possibly seeking to avert or at least delay what could be a high-profile consumer outrage less than a month into his administration.

In a letter to lawmakers, John Podesta, chief of Barack Obama’s transition team, urged Congress to consider moving back the full-power analog television from its current end date of midnight Feb. 17.

The letter also slammed the resources available for viewers, notably the now-depleted fund for converter box coupons, as “woefully inadequate.”

The Obama letter followed a call by Consumers Union to delay the shutoff.

But the move may not be so simple. Already, the terms of the 30-day “nightlight” extension, in which some stations will be allowed to continue broadcasting DTV-education and emergency information after Feb. 17, has revealed that the spectrum in question is not just expected to lie fallow. With many broadcasters planning to switch their DTV signals to their analog channel assignments on that day, some stations will be unable to keep the analog signals going due to interference with stations in their own markets as well as neighboring areas.

Also, public-safety officials have warned that some users plan to launch systems using the 700 MHz spectrum (Channels 51 and up) starting in February. Those uses, and those of other impending licensees, could have to be delayed if the analog signals don’t go away.

And the Community Broadcasters Association, representing Low-Power and Class A stations, has warned against excessive use of the nightlight extension, saying that the continued occupation of channels by full-power broadcasters could delay the LPTV efforts to switch to digital themselves.

TV Technology columnist Doug Lung outlines the likely technical problems in this week's RF Report.

What’s more, even full-power broadcasters themselves have been cautious about lobbying for a delay. As late as Thursday afternoon, NAB declined to ask for that favor.

“The certainty created when Congress set the February 17 hard date for the DTV transition was a positive catalyst for broadcasters, manufacturers, retailers, public safety groups, consumers and the government,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said in a statement. “NAB and broadcasters nationwide are committed to being ready by February 17 and strongly support a solution that would enable the government to continue making converter box coupons available to consumers who rely on free television. We continue to urge Congress to act swiftly to ensure coupons are made available for those who need them.”

On the other hand, there have been numerous calls by Congress to swiftly restore liquidity to the coupon program, either by injecting emergency funds or tweaking agency spending rules to allow the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to spend money it doesn’t quite have yet.

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., chairman of the Senate Committee of Aging, called Thursday, for the Senate Commerce Committee to make the coupon program healthy again, and he urged the Commerce Department to ensure retailers have enough boxes on hand to meet the demand. The NTIA suggested there could be a shortfall of some 2.5 million boxes.

One telecom lawyer offered a balanced perspective.

“An extension at this point would be somewhat embarrassing—the transition process has been in the works for years, after all, so why aren’t we able to wrap it up on schedule, for crying out loud—but it would not be the end of the world,” Harry Cole, of the Arlington, Va., firm Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth wrote on the firm’s blog. “The television industry and the Media Bureau’s staff have all done their jobs and, despite the enormity of the task, they have all managed to get their end of the process teed up reasonably well for a February 17 transition. The Bureau staff and the industry are to be heartily congratulated for getting us to where we are.

“To the extent that any problem may exist, it arises because of uncertainty about the extent of the public’s readiness for the change. If the politicians decide that a month or two more might improve that readiness, where’s the harm?”

Update: The four major networks made statements on the matter. ABC issued a one-sentence comment supporting a delay. NBC called the Obama statement "prudent and well-considered." Fox and CBS said they were glad of the discussion but did not expressly call for it.

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NAB issued a statement noting that the Obama letter highlighted the importance of local over-the-air broadcasting, but it did not explicitly take a position.

Former FCC Chairmen Michael Powell and William Kennard wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times in support of the delay.

And some Republicans lawmaker have jumped up against the plan. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, who has consistently downplayed the potential disenfranchisement of viewers form the transition, said Obama was panicking; and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, also issued a statement opposing the move.


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