Editorial: Soft Hard Date for DTV Transition

Blindly holding to the Feb. 17 date for date's sake is not the right course.
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There are enough obvious problems on the road to DTV that last week's request by President-elect Obama's transition team that the Feb. 17 analog shutoff deadline be pushed back—probably by about four months—doesn't sound like quite the heresy it might have been six months ago.

Ideally, Congress will quickly pass legislation to get the DTV-to-analog coupons flowing freely again, broadcasters can quickly fill in coverage gaps with recently approved FCC engineering fixes, and government and industry can coordinate national call-center operations and more—all in the next five weeks.

But if not, blindly holding to a date for date's sake is not the right course.

We would have probably sided with Republicans defending a stay-the-course policy if the economy had not tanked and the new administration didn't need to focus its energies on keeping us out of the poorhouse, or if the NTIA had better estimated or planned for the spike in coupon requests from procrastinators like, well, many of us. Or if Congress had taken decisive action rather than hand-wringing. Or if the Wilmington, N.C, test had not revealed more widespread coverage-area discrepancies than had been anticipated and showed how many calls would come from viewers who needed help.

But the current reality includes all those and more. The FCC just last week announced more than $8 million in DTV education grants to various outside contractors, with only a few weeks until the transition. Yes, the FCC didn't get the money from Congress until late in the process, but neither the FCC nor the NTIA was beating down Congress' doors for funding.

Critics also have pointed out that Congress could have anytime in the past couple of years provided more funds, changed the converter-box application rules or otherwise legislated changes to the DTV transition regime.

At times, it seemed to come down to basic philosophical differences. Republicans, who were in control when the hard date was set, were concerned about it becoming a welfare program. They attempted to guard against a black market in coupons by picking a definition of eligible households that initially excluded sending the coupons to post-office boxes—where rural viewers often get their mail—and nursing homes, home for many of the elderly. These turned out to be two of the target at-risk populations most in need of help.

Democrats kept pushing for more flexibility in the program and better coordination among agencies, to ensure it did not hit hardest at the at-risk populations.

Let's be clear: Broadcasters have done their jobs. They have filled the airwaves with public service announcements about the switch, and done mock analog turnoff tests to educate viewers. But every month that goes by with broadcasters having to pay the energy costs to simultaneously keep analog and digital signals running potentially will cost stations millions. The new Obama government ought to consider that when it begins dispensing funds to industries to help revive the economy.

The Obama administration is correct to ask for the delay, then fix the coupon and education problems, pick a new firm date and finally, stick to it. The nation has enough problems; it doesn't have to create a new one.

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