DTV Delay Debated

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It was Boucher vs. Barton et al Tuesday night as the House debated a slightly modified Senate bill that would delay the DTV transition date.

With legislators heading for the exit to avoid an ice storm, a sparsely populated chamber heard Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), chairman of the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, argue for what he called the “regrettable but necessary step” of delaying the date, saying only with that delay and additional funding could Congress assure a smooth transition and avoid disruption and loss of service to millions of homes.

Boucher returned again and again to Nielsen’s estimate that 6.5 million TV homes were completely unready for the DTV transition and would lose service if the transition hard date remained Feb. 17.

He pointed out that there were now 3 million coupon requests on the National Telecommunications & Information Administration’s waiting list, requests that cannot be honored, he said.

Boucher also argued that the current need to move the date would have been ”completely avoidable” if the then-Republican-controlled Congress had provided more funds for coupon box program. At the time, we requested $2.3 billion, said Boucher–the actual allocation was $1.34B. We now know that the [$2.3B] figure was closer to the mark, he said.

Boucher also said the delay was necessary to help the FCC staff up and fund its call centers, which he said were not prepared for the flood of calls they would get. At least one Republican–FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell–shares that concern.

Like any good debater, Boucher made an effort to anticipate and address his Republican opponents’ concerns, including that broadcasters would be forced to spend more to remain on in analog at a time when they were feeling the economic crunch, that first reponders would be denied access to spectrum, and that companies who bid $20 billion for broadcast spectrum, and made plans based on the hard date, would have to delay those plans.

He pointed out that the major networks, the major spectrum winners–Verizon and AT&T–and organizations representing police, firefighters and public safety communications officials, had all said they were OK with the delay (he could have added advertisers, ad agencies and broadcasters, but didn’t).

On the public safety issue, he conceded it would delay their access to the spectrum, but said there was a bigger public safety concern, and that would be cutting off millions of analog viewers from important emergency information relayed by broadcasters.

He said he regretted the additional expense to broadcasters, but said at this point it was unavoidable. Actually, it is avoidable by broadcasters who don’t want to keep spending the money, since the move of the hard date to June 12 does not require broadcasters to continue analog past Feb. 17, it simply allows them to, but only until June 12.

Finally, Barton pledged that this would absolutely, positively, be the last delay. This is a one-time only deal, he said, and his committee would not entertain requests for another delay, which he said “would simply not occur.”

Boucher continued to reserve time for speakers to join him in making the case, but appeared, so he was left to parry thrusts from a series of opponents.

Hitting lead-off was Rep. Joe Barton (D-TX), who had helped push for the hard date back in 2005.

He called the date move a solution in search of a problem. While he conceded there were some problems–with the coupon box program–but that they could have been worked out, and were being worked out, before the Obama administration–”in its infinite wisdom”–called for the delay.

He said that the administration had not consulted with experts in either the House or Senate before asking the majority to make the change, and that as a result, bipartisan talks about a solution short of changing the date broke down. “We can do nothing worse than delay,” he said.

Barton also said that the number of TV housholds that could lose service is in the hundreds of thousands, not millions.

“We need to keep this hard date. We need to defeat this bill,” he said.

Backing up Barton was Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), ranking member of Boucher’s subcommittee. He said he had discussed the date move with President Barack Obama earlier in the day during a discussion of the economic stimulus package (which contains funding for the coupon program).

Stearns said he tried to convince him that if he wanted to stimulate the economy, digital TV and broadband and wireless would do that, so why delay the transition and waste time and money. The president apparently was not convinced, saying that the accounting problem with the coupon boxes needed to be fixed.

Illinois Republican John Shimkus invoked 9/11. He pointed out that the 9/11 Commission had concluded the transition was overdue and was holding up spectrum for first responders. Woe be it, he said, sounding a tad oracular, if we have another national catastrophe in the next four months and we failed to release spectrum to first responders.

Thowing in his two-cents on the catastrophe front was Steve Scalise, Republican from Louisiana, who invoked Katrina as well as the billions of dollars in investment sitting on the sidelines waiting to get their hands on the spectrum.

Former broadcaster Greg Walden (R-OR) stood up for his peeps, saying he had letters from broadcasters in his home state saying it would cost them between $500,000 and a million in extra energy costs at t time when stating are laying off people. He echoed Barton in saying it was a solution in search of a problem.

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