Senator Proposes June DTV Deadline

Sen. Jay Rockefeller introduced a bill to delay the digital transition by another four months. Rockefeller, incoming chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, laid out legislation Thursday to extend the analog TV sunset date to June 12.

“The delay provides consumers who have been bogged down by the confusing bureaucracy time to prepare, protects public safety, and gives the incoming Obama Administration time to make sure that no Americans are left in the dark,” Rockefeller stated in a release announcing the bill. “The outgoing Bush Administration has mismanaged this initiative and President-elect Obama has asked Congress to delay the date of the transition. Over 2 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.”

In summarizing the bill, Rockefeller cites a Consumer Report saying 63 percent of Americans had “major misconceptions” about how to prepare. (One year ago, the figure was 74 percent). Those who do know may not be able to, since the fed’s converter-box subsidy ran dry three weeks ago. At last count, about 2 million people were on a waiting list to get the $40 coupons good toward the devices that allow analog TVs to decode digital signals. The economic stimulus package introduced in the House this week allots $650 million for more coupons, but the current Feb. 17 deadline will come and go long before that money ever gets turned into coupons.

Safety concerns are another reason to delay the transition, Rockefeller said. People who lose TV reception also lose access to the nation’s Emergency Alert System and to AMBER Alerts, one of the most effective tools in the rescue of abducted children. Over-the-air television was also a crucial conduit for information in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which took out wired communications infrastructures.

Then there’s the issue of February itself--not an ideal time in most areas of the country to install a roof-top antenna, or in some cases, for tower teams to swap antennas on 1,000-foot structures.

Democratic legislators, governors and mayors are now calling for a delay, since Republicans structured much of the transition schedule over Democratic objections. The current deadline gives the incoming administration just a month to organize the federal phone bank; ensure continued reception; and clean up the subsidy program.

Rockefeller blasted the agency in charge of the program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, for making a mess of it. To be fair, however, the NTIA was handed a sow’s ear in 2006 when Congress set the deadline date. The same legislation directed the NTIA to create $40 converter coupons that Iced-over towers on Mount Wilson above Los Angeles, January 2008.expired 90 days after date of issue. Of the $1.34 billion allotted to the program for coupons, nearly $550 million is tied up in coupons that have expired. The NTIA can’t recover that money to issue more coupons until Congress acts, which it has yet to do.