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A House Divided Over DTV Transition - Broadcasting & Cable

A House Divided Over DTV Transition

Oversight hearing in House subcommittee reinforces political schism in how change has been handled
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Wednesday's DTV transition oversight hearing in the House Communications, Technology and Internet Subcommittee showed once again the stark political divide in the view of that transition.

What is a "phased" transition to Democrats was branded "scattershot" by the other side.

Republicans said the delay to June 12 was unnecessary and a waste of $650 million, while Democrats said it was necessary to making sure millions of viewers did not lose their signals and to clear up confusion caused by the previous administration's handling of the program.

As B&C reported Wednesday, Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-VA), who backed moving the date, praised the industry and the FCC for its education efforts, though he did say that challenges lie ahead.

But Boucher did have concerns over possible reception issues and availability of converter boxes, saying that based on current redemption rates, there would be a need for over 5 million boxes at least, while the consumer electronics industry was anticipating only 4.2 million would be needed.

Anna Gomez, acting head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, said she shared Boucher's concern but that up until now inventory levels had been "good," and that her agency was continuing to monitor the situation and coordinating with the industry on where the boxes were needed.

Ranking member Cliff Stearns (R-FL) said that despite arm-twisting by government, the hundreds of stations that went ahead and made the transition on Feb. 17 ran into few problems. He also made the argument, echoed by other Republicans including John Shimkus of Illinois, that some percentage of households were going to be unready no matter what the government did or when it made the switch.

Democrat Anthony Weiner of New York said that might be true, but said the answer should not be "tough tacos, you are going to lose your service," and blamed the previous adminstration's handling of the transition, saying Democrats were mopping up after the DTV transition just as they were other messes the administration had left them.

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps agreed the FCC had not adequately planned or prepared. He said the FCC was trying to play catch-up, but could not guarantee there would not be problems, particularly with signal pattern changes between analog and digital. He said the FCC was working on implementing programs to help broadcasters fill in coverage gaps, but that took time and money, both of which were in short supply.

The FCC will at least have some more money to bolster call centers and for education and outreach to help inform viewers of potential signal losses no matter what steps they take to prepare.

Gomez said the FCC had asked for $65 million in funding from the $90 million in administration and other funding Congress gave it as part of the $650 million DTV funding in the economic stimulus package. Copps said some of that would go for a new RFP to improve its call center effort.

One Democrat who didn't have many encouraging words was John Dingell (D-Mich.), former chairman of the Commerce Committee, who suggested the FCC's education program was "disastrously mismanaged and largely ineffectual." He slammed NITA, albeit not Gomez, who is new to the post, for having told Congress last session that it had enough money to handle a spike in coupon requests--NTIA run out of funding at the end of December when that spike occurred.

Dingell said he did not have confidence that the transition would go well without being watched very closely by Congress.

Dingell pressed both Gomez and Copps on education efforts and funding, and indicated he was not entirely happy with the answers. He was looking for assurances that both had enough funding to make sure he did not receive angry calls from disaffected viewers. "You have not comforted me," Dingell told Gomez after a series of tough questions.

The DTV delay act allows households to reapply for coupons that have expired. Republicans on the committee urged it to put analog-only homes at the head of the line, and not the cable and satellite homes applying for converter boxes for second or third sets.

Gomez said that NTIA was ready to prioritize requests to put analog-only homes first if another waiting list situation loomed, but until then was not doing so. Boucher agreed that was the right way to approach it.

Stearns did not, saying that if NTIA confined itself to analog-only homes, rather than homes that will be able to get TV via cable and satellite, the government could get half a billion dollars back. More than one Republican suggested that while that might not seem like a lot of money in Washington these days, it was to them.

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