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With a Capital 'T' and That Rhymes With 'V'...

We'll have trouble, right here in the Capitol city, if the public doesn't get the 411 on this DTV transition, and soon. Thus conveyed the chairman of the House Commerce Committee to an audience of broadcasters earlier this week. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) delivered a scolding at the NAB State Leadership Conference, where legislators are typically a bit more amelioratory. They congratulate TV station owners on jobs well done, yada yada. And Dingell did some of that, acknowledging that broadcasters are running dual operations and paying correlative utility bills.

"This is not simply a technical challenge," the 50-year veteran of Congress told the group. "Technology isn't a matter of, 'if you build it, they will come.' The last time I checked, we weren't recording anything on our Betamaxes."

Then he related his beefs, first toward his colleagues.

"I'm detecting limited appreciation in certain quarters for the complexity and sensitivity of the transition," Dingell said, referring to the previous Republican majority on the committee that waved off Democratic concerns like a swarm of gnats. During the Republican reign, Democrats unsuccessfully pushed to invest more money in the public side of the transition; they did manage, however, to get the analog end date moved to February 2009 rather than New Year's Eve of 2008.

Not much has happened since, Dingell said, turning his sites toward the National Telecommunications Information Administration, the agency charged with developing a program to subsidize digital-to-analog converter boxes so legacy TV sets won't go dark.

"The DTV hard date became law more than a year ago," he said, "yet we still have no details of the converter box program to assist disenfranchised American households."

The NTIA is also supposed to come up with technical and qualification parameters for the converters, and issued a related Notice of Proposed Rulemaking last July. NTIA officials repeatedly said the final rules would be out by the end of last year. On Wednesday, NTIA Office of Communication and Information Deputy Assistant Secretary Meredith Atwell Baker said the rules would come out "very soon. Soon. Very soon." Baker delivered the vagary at a press conference announcing an equally vague DTV public education campaign, then sped out of the room without taking reporter's questions.

One source close to the NTIA proceeding said the rules are expected to come out the week of March 5, but "any minute now" speculation has been circulating for nigh on three months.

Dingell also blasted the NTIA for not being more decisive in its proposal, which sought comments on households qualifications, what form the subsidy coupons should take, how to construct the redemption program and prevent fraud.

"Based on the initial proposal from NTIA," Dingell said, "the Administration appears to view this program as little more than an unwelcome homework assignment. Their initial notice showed a shocking ignorance of the Congressional debate."

The debate notwithstanding, the Congressional directive was pretty bare bones: Congress allocated up to $1.5 billion for the converter subsidy program, including up to $160 million for administration. The bill directs that no more than two $40 coupons be provided via snail mail to households requesting them between Jan. 1, 2008 and March 31, 2009; that two coupons can't be used for one converter; and coupons expire in three months. NTIA was left with the details, which it's still mulling.

"By law, the coupon program starts in 10 months," Dingell said. "We don't yet have technical standards for the boxes. We don't know when the boxes will be ready. We don't know how much personal information consumers must disclose on the application. We don't know whether retailers will maintain an adequate supply of boxes and report redemption rates in a timely manner."

Dingell did not spare broadcasters the rod when he recalled how Dems were still trying to modify converter legislation when the NAB papered Capitol Hill with support for the bill as it was.

"In what is still a mystery to me, the NAB sent an unusual 'key vote' letter to every House member supporting a program that requires consumers to apply to the government for their coupon," he said. "You supported a program that capped consumer education funding at $5 million. As you must recognize this effort will require much more than that; $5 million won't even buy two, 30 second Super Bowl spots."

Dingell also let fly over the NAB's approach to DTV public education. The lobby's point man for publicizing the DTV transition, Jonathan Collegio, intends to treat it like a political campaign.

"I have 51 years of experience with elections," Dingell said, "and let me suggest one big distinction. You can win a political campaign with low turnout and a plurality of the votes--sometimes you don't even need a plurality, as the 2000 Presidential election taught us. If the digital transition campaign has low turnout and only captures 51 percent of the over-the-air audience, I doubt it would lead to much of a victory celebration."

The NAB, along with several other groups, kicked off a coalition effort Wednesday to let the public know what's going on. Recent surveys have shown that most people don't have a clue that the government intends to shut down the nation's most ubiquitous information system. Coalition participants include the lobbies for consumer electronics makers, the cable industry, public TV stations and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, among others. After the NTIA's Baker sang "Soon," and skedaddled, others in the group talked about their various Web sites, as if people who rely exclusively on over-the-air TV naturally surf the 'Net. (Census Bureau figures indicate that in 2003, 40 percent of American homes did not have computers.)

Before Dingell wrapped his NAB appearance, he took the FCC to task over having not yet defined public interest obligations for DTV.

"That agency repeatedly has problems following the authority given them by Congress," he said.

He then put the room on notice that he was "keeping a close eye" on retransmission disputes, and wished the broadcasters "the best of luck."

Soon after Dingell's speech, although it was not directly referenced, former Commerce Committee chief Joe Barton (R-Texas) issued a statement defending the way Republicans handled DTV legislation. He also appeared to be responding to speculation that the DTV end date would be pushed back yet again. (The original end date was Dec. 31, 2006.)

"Democrats seem so determined to reverse the work of last year's Republican Congress that they're talking about how to wreck the plan for bringing digital television into America's living rooms," he said. "Canceling the transition to digital television will undo years of work and break our promise to the firefighters, police officers and paramedics who need that vacated broadcast spectrum so they can talk to one another at moments when the DTV issue is life and death, not just what's on TV tonight."