Help Wanted, Again: NTIA Chief Splitting - Broadcasting & Cable

Help Wanted, Again: NTIA Chief Splitting

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Why is it so hard to find someone to run the crucial DTV-to-analog converter box coupon program?

Acting National Telecommunications & Information head Meredith Atwell Baker, who had only been in the post since Thanksgiving, is getting ready to leave.

The White House is preparing to nominate Neil Patel, an aide to Vice President Cheney, to head NTIA through the end of the president's term.

Sources said Baker was exiting because she was not going to be nominated to replace John Kneuer as full-time head of the agency and of the $1.5 billion coupon program that is part of the transition to digital in February 2009. NTIA declined comment on the reason behind the departure, simply confirming she was planning to exit, but not without helping with another transition, her own.

"Meredith Baker has been talking with Commerce Department officials for months about her desire to leave," confirmed NTIA spokesman Todd Sedmak. "There is no timetable for her departure, and she is going to ensure a smooth transition to her future replacement."

A source familiar with her decision said she had expressed her desire to make sure the program was left in good hands and so she would not be leaving immediately. "I don't expect her to be gone by March 15 or anything like that," said the source.

Baker's predecessor, Kneuer, left abruptly just before Thanksgiving, and only six weeks or so before the kick-off of the coupon program Jan. 1.

Baker, who had been working on the coupon program at NTIA for several years, was immediately named acting NTIA head and got good reviews inside the agency and on Capitol Hill.

The news of Baker's exit broke only 10 days after NTIA began processing coupon requests.

Democratic legislators have complained that administration officials won't be left holding a DTV transition time bomb if something goes wrong with the Feb. 17, 2009 analog turnoff. The departure of Baker and Kneuer does nothing to assuage those fears.

"I'm pleased Ms. Baker is committed to remaining at NTIA until a replacement is confirmed," said Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee. "[I] urge the president to nominate a well-qualified replacement who is knowledgeable about the transition and whose arrival will not cause any disruptions at this critical time in the transition."

Andrew Schwartzman, president of Media Access Project, was less sanguine about the prospects: "I'm very concerned. It is evident that the administration places a low priority on the DTV transition. Otherwise, it would ensure that there was consistency of leadership and adequate resources devoted to those tasks."

That concern was echoed by FCC Commissioner Michael Copps: "I don't see how changing NTIA leadership one more time does anything to inspire confidence or to move us toward the kind of integrated private-public partnership we need to ensure a smooth DTV transition," he told B&C.

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