Obama calls for DTV delay; Martin says postponement bad idea

President-elect Barack Obama asked Congress last week to delay the nation’s Feb. 17 transition to digital television broadcasting to avert any chance millions of over-the-air TV households would lose their TV reception following the transition.

The request, which came in a letter from Obama’s transition team co-chair John Podesta, followed a similar request from the Consumers Union asking Congress, Obama and President George W. Bush to delay the transition.

However, Kevin Martin, chairman of the FCC, said Jan. 10 that any delay is a bad idea. Speaking during the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Martin said postponing the transition could confuse consumers and pose problems for broadcasters that have scheduled engineering work to remove their analog antennas.

On Jan. 4, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration said it had reached the limit on the number of DTV converter box coupons it could issue based on Congress’s $1.34 billion allocation for the program. Those applying for coupons would be placed on a waiting list for coupons and be issued coupons on a first-come-first-serve basis as funds are returned to the U.S. Treasury from previously issued, expired coupons.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-MA, a member of the House Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, said Jan. 8 that delaying the transition date would create “significant logistical challenges.” Regardless, “the prospect of leaving millions of consumers in the dark” means Congress must “immediately consider” Obama’s proposal, he said.

In a letter Jan. 7 to Markey and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA, incoming chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the Consumers Union reminded the lawmakers that the federal treasury will receive more than $19 billion from the auction of spectrum freed up by the DTV transition. Running out of coupon funding, however, will require consumers to pay the full cost of converters, forcing them to “dig deeper into their own pockets to pay for the miscalculation by the federal government,” the letter said.

Besides the funding issue, the letter pointed out the FCC’s call center is not equipped to handle the flood of calls it will receive from unprepared TV viewers if the transition were to proceed on schedule. In December, Nielsen estimated that 7.8 million TV households relying on off-air reception nationwide have taken no action to prepare for the transition.