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Barton & Stearns: Show Us The DTV Money

The ranking members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee are asking the FCC to explain how they have been spending the stimulus money they got for DTV outreach, and how they have been overseeing that spending.

Among other concerns, they cited "rumors" that the FCC has given some money to call centers that didn't exist.

Joe Barton (R-TX) and Cliff Stearns (R-FL) opposed moving the DTV hard date, arguing that a simple accounting fix to the NTIA's converter box program would have solved the problem without moving the date and setting aside $650 million in the stimulus package to help with the extended transition.

In a letter to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps, the pair of legislators gave the pair of agency heads two weeks to provide answers to a number of questions.

First off, they wanted to know why it was necessary to allocate the $650 million in the simulus package for the coupon program given that there was still about $250 million left of the original funding, saying that all it would have taken to free up funding was their accounting-fix bill fix.

"Claims that the extra money is needed to help straggling consumers after the transition are clearly not valid since...there is still $250 million left of the original funding."

In the letter, they argue that delaying the date actually slowed consumer preparation, and that the "hundreds of millions of dollars" the delay cost broadcasters could have pushed some stations "over the edge" into bankruptcy.

They also want an accounting of how the "almost $70 million" the FCC got from the stimulus package for outreach and education was spent (it actually got $65 milion, plus access to another $10 millino if it needs it for call centers).

Barton and Stearns want to know where the unspent money is going and whether the FCC has to update Commerce on how it is being spent. Commerce got $90 million for DTV education and outreach, with the stipulation that it could give some, or all, of it to the FCC. It wound up splitting the difference and giving it most.

The legislators seemed particularly concerned about oversight of the walk-in help centers. "There are already rumors that some walk-in centers that received grant money don't even exist. Is that true?" they asked.

Barton, in particular, has long expressed concern about the possibility of waste, fraud and abuse in the DTV transition.

"We are in receipt of that letter and will respond appropriately," said NTIA spokesman Bart Forbes.

An FCC spokesperson confirmed the commission had received the letter and said it would respond to it by the deadline.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.