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Dingell Threatens to Delay Transition

November 27, 2006

In a recent letter to the Bush-appointed head of the NTIA, Congressman John Dingell and nineteen other Democrats (out of 26) on the House Energy and Commerce Committee once again blasted the "Republican's" digital TV transition law and threatened to "derail the firm [transition] deadline" if NTIA's digital-to-analog converter box program was not handled properly.

While phrasing the threat in politico-speak (i.e. the Administration's mishandling of the coupon program would cause the delay), any extension of the February 17, 2009, analog deadline would only happen if Dingell made it so. John Dingell is of course the 80-year-old Congressman who will be the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee for the next two years.

His letter says the "Government's" (not them, apparently) decision to shut off analog broadcasting will disenfranchise consumers, and further disadvantage the poor, the elderly, minority groups, "and those with multiple analog television sets in their home."

He then goes on to comment on how the NTIA should structure the coupon program "so as not to exacerbate the [Republican] plan's statutory flaws."

You may recall from an earlier story that the proposed Democratic version of the DTV transition legislation was entitled the "Television Takings Restoration Act of 2005."

Okay, what Dingell wants from the NTIA:

1) No eligibility restrictions on who can get coupons. That is, you won't have to rely solely on over-the-air broadcasts to get your $40 subsidy coupons. Cable and satellite subscribers should be welcome. And no means test; millionaires should not be excluded from the government freebie.

2) Converter boxes should output the same quality video and audio that people get with analog broadcasts. Plus, the Democrats support energy efficiency.

3) NTIA should "take into account" advances in technology that "may enable eligible boxes to receive higher quality picture and sound." NTIA should also "consider cost-effective measures" so that converter boxes could be "updated, modified, or repaired" where problems arise.

4) After noting that the $5 million Congress gave the NTIA for consumer education is "woefully inadequate," Dingell says the consumer education program must be "carefully managed" for a "smooth, consumer-friendly transition." Wow! What great advice!

5) The NTIA should let (the Democratic) Congress know how the (Republican) program is going in case they need to make changes. Oh, and the NTIA needs to make sure retailers provide inventory information so that "supply difficulties" can be addressed.

All of the above appeared in a number of lobbyists' comments to the NTIA. There was nothing new or even interesting in Dingell's letter (except for the threat). It all seemed to be nothing more than a continuation of partisan confrontational tactics. Why work constructively toward a common goal when you can go around poking your fellow members of Congress in the eye with a sharp stick? (just for fun)

There is no indication that the NTIA is going to take a partisan approach to putting together the coverter-box coupon program. There's too much to do; it's technical and commercial and complex and there's a deadline. The program begins January 1, 2008. That's uncomfortably soon, and the consumer electronics industry, the box retailers, and the professionals who want the contract to run the program all know that.

The NTIA is expected to have final rules for the program out by the end of December.

The last paragraph in Dingell's letter contains the threat to delay the end of the transition. Postponing the final date yet again would be a disaster for everyone. It almost certainly will not happen, although talk of extending the date was being flung around even before the current date was finalized, mostly by lobbyists hoping to leverage the threat of a delay for some political gain.

If you want to take a look at the three-page letter, here's the link.