Page 3 of 3   <      

Stalled Switch to Digital TV A Classic Tale of Breakdown

Meanwhile, the NTIA was experiencing its own problems. In November 2007, the agency's chief, John Kneuer, left less than a year after taking the job. His deputy, Meredith Atwell Baker, assumed his role until the White House nominated Neil Patel, Vice President Dick Cheney's assistant secretary for domestic and economic policy.

Baker submitted her resignation once Patel had been named. But lawmakers thought it was not the time to make a change and asked Baker to stay through the transition.

Through it all, the public was requesting coupons, millions of them. And by September 2008, Markey's office and GAO officials were worrying that the system and the funding could be overwhelmed.

"With a spike in demand likely as the transition date nears . . . consumers might incur significant wait time to receive their coupons and might lose television service if their wait time lasts beyond February 17, 2009," GAO officials warned in testimony. Baker assured Congress that the NTIA expected to have enough money.

"The coupon program has both sufficient funds and system processing capabilities to achieve this goal, to distribute a total of more than 50 million coupons through March 31, 2009, and to do so without the creation of a large backlog," the NTIA told Congress on Nov. 6. "Also, NTIA has built flexibility into the program to respond to various or unexpected events."

As Markey and the GAO had warned, there was a surge of demand for coupons: from 1.1 million requests a week on Nov. 6 to 1.5 million requests during the second week of December.

Baker then sent a memo to the Office of Management and Budget. "In light of high demand, the program is likely to obligate all of the coupon funds in advance of the digital TV transition," she wrote.

One quick fix to the problem would have been to waive the government accounting rules so that the program could send out more coupons than it was authorized to. Since more than 40 percent of the coupons were expiring without being redeemed, the NTIA wouldn't necessarily go over budget.

But when Baker recommended that plan to the OMB, it responded, in effect, that the coupon program was Congress's idea and Congress could fix it however it saw fit, she said.

On Dec. 19, Baker met with Markey's staff on Capitol Hill. "Okay, this is your chance to say, 'I told you so,' " she told them.

The program was running low on money. The deluge of coupon requests was getting worse.

During the week of Dec. 24, the coupon requests rose to 1.7 million. The next week, requests peaked at nearly 2 million. On Jan. 4, the coupon program ran out of money. Millions were put on a wait list -- just six weeks before the transition.

The window for getting prepared was closing, and fast. Because Congress had decided that the coupons should be sent with the cheapest possible postage, it was taking four weeks to get them to people.

Markey and Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.) began drafting a bill that would have waived the accounting rules and allowed first-class postage. But given the Bush administration's opposition to the waiver, the idea was shelved.

Republicans argued that the coupons could be distributed in time. But the Obama administration said it was becoming less likely, and it worried that the FCC did not have enough people to answer consumer questions during the switch. Congress accommodated the new president and granted a delay.

"Millions of Americans, including those in our most vulnerable communities, would have been left in the dark if the conversion had gone on as planned," President Obama said in signing the bill calling for the delay. Baker said the "delay shouldn't deny the success of where we are today."

The bill allowed stations to go ahead with the transition if they won FCC approval.

On Tuesday, more than 400 stations are expected to drop their analog television broadcasts. It is not known how many people will lose programming.

<          3

© 2009 The Washington Post Company