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NTIA Seeks DTV Partners

Show me the money. Essentially that was the message from the man in charge of coming up with a plan to keep analog-only broadcast viewers from being left behind in the transition to digital.

John Kneuer, Acting assistant secretary of Commerce for Communications & information for the National Telecommunications & Information Agency, stressed to a Washington media crowd Thursday that the transition to digital would be arguably the biggest communications sea change ever, bigger than the switch to color TV, he said, "with more immediate impact" than anything he had ever experienced in his communications career.

He pointed out, in his speech to the Media Institute in Washington, that Congress has only given NTIA $5 million for a public-education campaign. He told the crowd they knew better than anyone how far that would go, which isn't far, and said the industries whose viewers will be affected have to pitch in big time. He said he welcomes all the help he can get.

Asked whether he could use some of the $100 million directed to administration of the subsidy for that education campaign, he said no, the statute was clear that no more than $5 million could go to education.

Kneuer said he had personal experience with viewers whose signals got suddenly yanked. He said that in another life he had had to try and negotiate a dispute between Disney, who he was working for, and Time Warner over cable carriage in New York. After negotiating "furiously" over a weekend, the ABC signal was pulled. The New York Post and Daily News carried pictures of Mickey Mouse with a line through him, and the New York Times had nuns weeping in the streets over missing Michael J.Fox's farewell to Spin City. "That was one station and one day," he said, "but it was pretty much as if the world had come to an end."

NTIA is the administration's spectrum policy adviser, so one of the questions--from former FCC Chairman James Quello--was NTIA's position on allowing unlicensed wireless devices in the broadcast band, which is part of a massive telecom rewrite bill being marked up Thursday in the Senate Commerce Committee.

Kneuer pointed out that the government had allowed such devices in spectrum used for sensitive defense applications, so he thought the FCC could find a way to make it work in the broadcast band.

Kneuer said that NTIA had no current plans to revive its studies on minority ownership, pointing out budget constraints and that the FCC has most of that data.

Kneuer said he had received his first request for a $40 coupon for a converter box, postmarked from a prison. He said he wasn't sure whether a cell qualified as a household or not.