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Markey: Feb. 17 DTV Date May Have To Move

Update: Obama Asks Congress to Delay DTV Transition

Related: The DTV Countdown: Complete Coverage of the DTV Transition

The DTV hard date appears to be softening.

Consumers Union (CU) late Wednesday asked the heads of the congressional committees with telecommunications oversight, as well as the current and future administrations, to consider delaying the Feb. 17, 2009 transition date.

And at least one of those key Congressional players, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, says the date may have to move.

In a letter to Rep. Markey, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committe, and others, the CU requested that Congress consider a delay "until a plan is in place to minimize the number of consumers who will lose TV signals, particularly by fixing the flaws in the federal coupon program created to offset the cost of this transition." 

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration this week announced that it had hit the funding ceiling for its program to distribute government subsidies for DTV-to-analog converter boxes and that new applications would have to be put on a waiting list unless the cap were raised or the Antideficiency Act (ADA) rule preventing it from spending money it expected to be freed up by expired coupons was waived.

“Congressman Markey is working on an exemption to the ADA to deal with the immediate waiting list issue," said Daniel Reilly, a spokesman for Markey. "But with the date looming, moving the date back certainly warrants further discussion and may be a wise choice.”

According to several sources, the Obama FCC transition team has been "very busy" on the issue and has been floating the possibility of moving the date.  The transition press office had not returned an e-mail request for comment at press time.

Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst for Consumers Union and one of the two signatories on the letter, said CU had met with the transition team about the issue, and that they are "rightly concerned that this is a mess that they are now going to have to clean up in a very short time frame."

He would not comment on whether they favored moving the date beyond only saying that the transition team has been "extremely active on the DTV transition issue." He said the Obama transition team had not asked Consumers Union to send the letter.

Consumers Union has suggested the move could be in the neighborhood four months or so, though it has not offered a timetable. That is according to a CNBC interview with CU senior counsel Chris Murray, the other signature on the CU letter. Murray told CNBC that he thought there was a "reasonably good chance" that Congress would push the date back four months or so. "We're not ready to say there will be a delay yet," he said. "We believe that Congress should consider a delay [but] I don't think I can talk about this as something that is readily going to happen," he said.

Perhaps, but the Washington lobbying community was buzzing Wednesday with talk that it was a real possibility.

In an e-mail alert from communications law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer obtained by B&C, the Murray CNBC intervew was cited prominently, with lawyers there saying they were hearing that "serious consideration" was being given to moving the date to June 1 (Memorial Day weekend) and suggesting more trial balloons would be floated in the coming days.

According to the lobbyist, the new administration is not looking forward to inheriting a transition with major issues about viewers not receiving their subsidies in time. That would include target populations like senior citizens, minorities and the disabled.

It would be tough to make the move at this late date. The broadcasting and cable industries and the government have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and donated airtime on hammering home that Feb. 17 date, putting it on Web sites, billboards, and even a race car. Some broadcasters have already made the switch early (Wilmington, N.C.), or are about to (Hawaii on Jan. 15), and some of the spectrum has already been auctioned for advanced services.

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.