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Published: Friday, 1/9/2009

Obama wants digital TV switch delayed


WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama is urging Congress to postpone the Feb. 17 switch from analog to digital television broadcasting, arguing that too many Americans who rely on analog TV sets to pick up over-the-air channels won't be ready.

In a letter to key lawmakers yesterday, Obama transition team co-chair John Podesta said the digital transition needs to be delayed largely because the Commerce Department has run out of money for coupons to subsidize digital TV converter boxes for consumers. People who don't have cable or satellite service or a TV with a digital tuner will need the converter boxes to keep their older analog sets working.

Obama officials also are concerned the government is not doing enough to help Americans - particularly those in rural, poor, or minority communities - prepare for and navigate the transition.

"With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient, and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date," Mr. Podesta wrote to the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate and House Commerce committees.

In 2005, Congress required that broadcasters switch from analog to digital broadcasts to free up valuable chunks of wireless spectrum. The newly available room in the airwaves can be used for commercial wireless services and for emergency-response networks.

Because Congress set the Feb. 17, 2009, date for the change, it would have to pass a new law to postpone it.

Mr. Obama's request for a delay is a victory for Consumers Union, which had asked for the transition to be postponed.

"We are extremely pleased the incoming administration is supportive of consumer efforts to ensure that poor, elderly, and rural consumers do not face economic hardship as we move broadcasting to digital transmission," Gene Kimmelman, the group's vice president for federal policy, said.

The Obama team decided to push for a delay after the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, said Monday it had hit a $1.34 billion funding limit set by Congress to pay for converter box coupons.

The coupon program allows consumers to request up to two $40 vouchers per household to help pay for the boxes, which generally cost between $40 and $80 each and can be purchased without a coupon.

The NTIA said it had no choice but to start a waiting list for coupon requests as of Jan. 4, meaning that consumers who have applied since then are unlikely to receive their vouchers before Feb. 17. The waiting list has requests for 1.1 million coupons.

Congress is considering whether to step in with new accounting rules and possibly more money to get the program back on track.

In his letter, Mr. Podesta said government funding for both the coupon program and consumer education and support efforts is "woefully inadequate." Mr. Obama plans to include resources to help viewers through the digital transition in his economic recovery package.

Mr. Obama's proposal to push off the transition, however, is running into some resistance, particularly among Republicans.

Meredith Attwell Baker, head of the NTIA, said the Bush Administration opposes a postponement since the government and industry have "invested so much in preparing for this date."

A delay, she said, "would create uncertainty, frustration, and confusion among consumers."

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