By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009
The push to postpone the nation's switch to digital television next month got a boost yesterday when a top aide to President-elect Barack Obama sent a letter to key members of Congress urging a delay, saying there is "insufficient support" for the problems consumers will experience during the shut-off of analog signals.
The request comes 41 days before the nation's full-powered television stations are scheduled to permanently shut off the traditional analog signals they have used for more than half a century and switch to all-digital broadcasts. Analog television sets that rely on "rabbit ear" or rooftop antennas to receive broadcasts will not work unless they are upgraded with a converter box. Federal officials said this week that the billion-dollar program to distribute $40 coupons to defray the cost of the boxes has run out of money and that the 1.1 million consumers already on the waiting list might not receive them in time for the Feb. 17 transition.
Projections suggest that the number of consumers on the waiting list to get a coupon could climb to 5 million by early February, increasing by hundreds of thousands every day, the Obama transition team said.
"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," John Podesta, co-chair of the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team, wrote in the letter to leaders of the Senate and House commerce committees.
Preparations for the switch to digital television have been rocky. Lawmakers and consumer advocates worry that television watchers -- particularly low-income, rural and elderly Americans who rely most heavily on over-the-air signals -- will lose access to their main source of news, emergency notifications and entertainment.
Television industry analysts at Nielsen Co. estimated that as of December, 6.8 percent of the 114 million U.S. households with televisions were not ready for the transition. Another 10 percent had at least one television set that was not ready. Consumers who have digital television sets, or who subscribe to cable or satellite service, will not lose programming.
The economic downturn has exacerbated the situation, industry analysts say. Many consumers are opting to buy an inexpensive converter box to work with their existing television sets instead of upgrading to new digital televisions. Others are choosing to try free, over-the-air signals as they cut cable and satellite service from their monthly budgets.
Congress is trying to add emergency funds to the coupon program to make sure consumers who need a voucher receive one in time for the transition. A coupon is not needed to purchase a converter box. But with boxes costing $50 to $80, Congress allocated $1.34 billion to provide $40 coupons to help offset the price. A spike in coupon demand in December caused the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department that runs the program, to hit the funding limit earlier than expected.
The coupons expire after 90 days. Under the rules set by Congress, the NTIA cannot commit more than $1.34 billion at any time for the coupons, so people on the waiting list cannot receive coupons until already-issued vouchers expire. Congress could waive that rule to allow the NTIA to issue new coupons without waiting for unredeemed ones to expire.
Obama's transition team said it supported waiving that rule but that broader action to push back the transition date is also needed. Obama's proposed economic stimulus package will include additional funds to support the digital conversion process, the transition team said.
"Moving the transition date entails significant logistical challenges," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet. "However, the prospect of leaving millions of consumers in the dark requires Congress to immediately consider the feasibility of the president-elect's proposal."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said it was too early to call for a delay and that Congress should instead find a solution to the coupon shortage.
Delaying the transition would further confuse consumers, said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association. "Moving the date would require starting a massive education effort from scratch," he said.
The National Association of Broadcasters will continue its consumer education plan, in which it has invested more than $1 billion, "to make this transition work," said spokesman Dennis Wharton.
Some networks, including ABC, support the delay. "We certainly think it makes more sense for people to be on their roofs fiddling with their antennas in June rather than February," said Preston Padden, executive vice president of government affairs for Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC.
"I initially thought the digital transition would turn into a TV version of Y2K, but now it's looking more like Hurricane Katrina," said David Waterman, a telecommunications professor at Indiana University. "I think they're underestimating the impact this transition will have on people."