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Obama: Delay digital TV start

He says public needs more help

Associated Press / January 9, 2009
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WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama is urging Congress to postpone the Feb. 17 switch from analog to digital television broadcasting, arguing that too many Americans who rely on analog TV sets to pick up over-the-air channels won't be ready.

In a letter to key lawmakers, Obama transition team cochair John Podesta said the digital transition needs to be delayed largely because the Commerce Department has run out of money for coupons to subsidize digital TV converter boxes for consumers. People who don't have cable or satellite service or a new TV with a digital tuner will need the converter boxes to keep their older analog sets working.

Obama transition officials are also concerned the government is not doing enough to help Americans - particularly those in rural, poor, or minority communities - prepare.

In 2005, Congress required that broadcasters switch from analog to digital broadcasts, which are more efficient, to free up valuable chunks of wireless spectrum. The newly available airwaves can be used for commercial wireless services and for emergency-response networks.

Obama's request is a victory for Consumers Union, which had asked for a postponement. "We are extremely pleased the incoming administration is supportive of consumer efforts to ensure that the poor, elderly, and rural consumers do not face economic hardship," said Gene Kimmelman, the group's vice president.

The Commerce Department said Monday that it had hit a $1.34 billion funding limit set by Congress to pay for converter box coupons. The coupon program allows consumers to request up to two $40 vouchers per household to help pay for the boxes, which generally cost between $40 and $80 each and can be purchased without a coupon.

In his letter, Podesta said government funding for the coupon program and consumer education and support efforts is "woefully inadequate." He said Obama plans to include resources to help consumers through the digital transition in an economic recovery package.

But the idea of a delay was not met with universal support.

The Bush administration opposes a postponement. A delay, an administration official said, would create uncertainty, frustration, and confusion.

Representative Joe Barton of Texas, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's top Republican, said there's no need to "bail out" the program because the government will be able to send out more coupons as unredeemed ones expire.

The National Association of Broadcasters would not say whether it supports pushing back the transition date, but it believes the problems with the coupon program can be fixed without a delay.

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