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Don't Shortchange DTV Switch, Dems Tell NTIA

Newly-empowered Democrats on the Energy & Commerce Committee wasted no time telling the Bush administration not to short-change the DTV transition and that to do so could "derail the Feb. 17, 2009 deadline for the DTV transition.

In a letter to acting National Telecommunications & Information Administration head John Kneuer, the Democrats, led by ranking members and soon to be committee leaders John Dingell and Ed Markey, they made the wishes of the new majority clear.

They pointed out that they had voted against Republican-backed transition plan's passage because it was "highly flawed" and "disadvantages the poor."

The Democrats oppose limiting participation in the converter box program only to over-the-air households, rather than to second or third analog-only sets in cable households. The Republicans were looking to limit the program--there is $1.5 billion allocated--both due to the potential expense of covering all analog-only sets, which could exceed that figure, and for fear it would be gamed by a TV version of welfare cheats.

In essence, the two parties split along, well, party lines, over whether the program was necessary assistance to the poor and minorities or a corporate tax-and-spend program that could be too easily gamed (Republicans envisioned something of a black market in coupons). The Dems, in particular, argue that since it is a government-forced march to DTV, viewers should be "held harmless" as much as possible, including the poorer and minority viewers who have higher penetrations of analog-only sets.

But they don't confine their concern just for the poor. The Democrats also oppose a means test--which NTIA proposed--for the up to two $40 coupons per household that can be redeemed for the boxes. Those boxes convert digital signals to analog so that analog sets not connected to cable or satellite won't go dark come February 2009, when the switch-over to digital is scheduled. The Democrats argue that there should be as little consumer disruption as possible, whether the consumer is rich or poor.

The Democrats also argue that the boxes should convert the DTV signal to an analog picture at least as good as the one viewers currently get, and to make the boxes flexible enough to be updated or modified as receiver technology advances, or repairable "where problems arise." Since millions of consumers are being required to use them, the Dems want the government to make sure they don't become a consumer headache.

The Democrats echoed the broadcast industry's complaint that the $5 million allocated to the consumer education campaign is woefully inadequate, but simply advised that NTIA do the best it can, working with other agencies and the private sector.

Finally, they want NTIA to report regularly to Congress on the progress of the subsidy program, and to collect information from retailers on their box inventory.

Conceding that Congress, in this case the Republicans, had given it "a challenging task" while failing to provide enough money, Dingell, Markey & company said it would have to do the best it could, understanding that "failure to devise a consumer-friendly converter box program, or to inform consumers properly", could jeopardize its success and derail the February 2009 deadline.