New legislation proposes June 12 as new DTV transition date

Following a request by the Obama administration, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, last week introduced a bill to delay the DTV transition by three months. If passed, the shutdown date for analog television would be June 12.

“I firmly believe that our nation is not yet ready to make this transition,” said Rockefeller, incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. The delay is necessary, the senator said, to help Americans who are confused about the transition and unprepared for it, to reduce public safety risks, to allow federal agencies to better prepare, to allow the DTV coupon program to be fixed, to give time for more local community coordination of the transition, and to reduce the safety risk for those who work on antennas during the winter months.

“The outgoing Bush Administration has mismanaged this initiative,” Rockefeller said. “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 House is also working on legislation to delay the Feb. 17 transition date. Also, the House Appropriations Committee last week recommended adding $650 million in new funds to the existing $1.5 billion for the DTV transition. It is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009, a legislative package that also contains $6 billion in broadband and wireless grants to boost the rollout of Internet access to underserved areas.

The Rockefeller legislation does not address some additional steps House members have been considering, including a waiver to government accounting rules that would allow the Commerce Department to send out DTV coupons to consumers on its waiting list a little faster and requiring the government to send the coupons out via First Class mail. Currently, it is taking nearly a month for TV viewers to get the coupons.

The move for a proposed change of date for the transition has provoked a partisan split in Congress, and there’s still uncertainty about whether the digital transition will actually be delayed. Republicans have complained about the proposed change, arguing that it would confuse consumers and could harm first responders, like police and fire officials, who will be able to use some of the airwaves that will be left empty when broadcasters turn off their analog signals.

Sen. John McCain, the prominent Arizona Republican, broke with those in his party opposing the delay and sent a letter supporting the Rockefeller legislation. “While I agree with many others that an extension of this well-publicized cutoff date may only serve to confuse consumers, I would not oppose a very short extension of less than 120 days, provided that public safety’s ability to access this spectrum is not delayed and will be made available on Feb. 17,” McCain said.

Others supporting a delay include AT&T, the Consumers Union, and the AARP. Opponents, including the Consumer Electronics Association trade group and Verizon, argue that a delay would cause even more confusion.