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 Thursday, Obama transition team co-chair John Podesta noted that 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 new TV with a digital tuner will need the converter boxes to keep their older analog sets working.
Obama officials are also concerned that 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," Podesta wrote.
In 2005, Congress required that broadcasters switch from analog to digital broadcasts, which are more efficient, 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.
Podesta's letter went to the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate and House Commerce committees. Because Congress set the Feb. 17 date, it would have to pass a new law to postpone it.
Obama's request for a delay is a victory for Consumers Union, which had asked for a postponement of the digital TV shift.
"We are extremely pleased the incoming administration is supportive of consumer efforts to ensure that the poor, elderly and rural consumers do not face economic hardship as we move broadcasting to digital transmission," said Gene Kimmelman, the group's vice president for federal policy.
The Obama team decided to push for a delay after the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, said Monday that 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.
At this point, the agency is sending coupons to people on the list only as unredeemed coupons currently in circulation expire, freeing up more money for the program. The waiting list has requests for 1.1 million coupons.
Congress would need to step in with more money or new accounting rules to get the program back on track, and is currently working on a bill to address the problem.
In his letter, Podesta said government funding for both the coupon program and consumer education and support efforts is "woefully inadequate."
He said Obama plans to include resources to help consumers through the digital transition in the economic recovery package now being developed with Congress.
But the idea of a delay was not met with universal support.
Meredith Attwell Baker, head of the NTIA, said the Bush administration opposes a postponement in the digital TV transition since the government and broadcasters have "invested so much in preparing for this date."
A delay, she said, "would create uncertainty, frustration and confusion among consumers."
Baker added that the current administration wants to instead focus on quickly fixing the problems facing the coupon program to meet last-minute demand. It is asking for another $250 million in funding to do that.
Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, insisted that there is no need to "bail out" the digital transition program because the NTIA will be able to send out more coupons as unredeemed ones expire.
"Ditching the deadline and slathering on more millions of taxpayer dollars ... is just panic," he said in a statement.
For its part, the National Association of Broadcasters would not say whether it supports or opposes pushing back the transition date, but a spokeswoman for the organization said it believes the problems with the coupon program can be fixed without forcing a delay.