Obama, Others Call for DTV Transition Delay

Amid growing calls for the U.S. Congress to delay the nation's transition to digital television, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and four public safety organizations urged lawmakers to keep the original Feb. 17 deadline.

This week, a representative of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, the Consumers Union, and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a computer recycling advocacy group, all called on Congress to delay the transition. The calls for a delay came after the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said its TV Converter Box Coupon Program, with a US$1.3 billion budget from Congress, was out of money.

The digital converter boxes are needed for televisions that get over-the-air broadcasts, and the NTIA program provided $40 coupons for U.S. residents to purchase the converter boxes. Basic converter boxes cost between $40 and $80.

Despite the calls for a transition delay, the CEA said any changes in the schedule would cause widespread confusion among U.S. consumers. While U.S. residents applying for the NTIA coupons are being put on a waiting list, U.S. retailers have converter boxes available, said Gary Shapiro, CEA's president and CEO.

"Consumers have been bombarded with information regarding the Feb. 17 firm transition date, and all available information shows that nearly 100 percent of consumers are aware of the transition and are taking the necessary steps," Shapiro said in a statement. "Tens of millions of Americans have already taken action based on the firm transition date, and moving the date would require starting a massive education effort from scratch."

Part of the spectrum being vacated was sold in a U.S. Federal Communications Commission auction that concluded in early 2008. Another piece of the spectrum is designated for a nationwide wireless network for police and fire departments, but the FCC auction did not receive the minimum bid designated by the FCC, and the agency hasn't yet decided how to re-auction that spectrum.

Many wireless experts see the 700MHz spectrum being vacated by television stations as optimal for offering long-range wireless broadband service.

"First responders urgently need the analog spectrum, as do innovators waiting to deploy innovative new wireless broadband services," Shapiro added in his statement.

Representatives of Verizon and AT&T, both winners of large parts of the 700MHz spectrum, declined to comment on whether their companies would support a delay in the transition.

However, the heads of four public-safety groups sent a letter to Obama Friday, calling for no delays in the spectrum designated for use by police and fire departments. "An important benefit of the DTV transition is that it clears spectrum in the 700 MHz band for new interoperable radio communications systems for law enforcement, fire, emergency medical and other public safety agencies," said the letter, signed by the heads of Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council.

"All fifty states have already received licenses to operate on portions of the new spectrum, and many agencies across the nation have already acquired radios capable of operating in the 700 MHz band," the letter continued.

Earlier this week, Obama transition team co-chairman John Podesta, sent a letter to congressional leaders, saying government money to support the transition is "woefully inadequate."

As of Monday, residents of about 24 million U.S. households had applied for 46 million converter box coupons, the NTIA said. Households can ask for two $40 coupons, and the coupons expire 90 days after they are mailed out. Several estimates have suggested that fewer than 20 million U.S. households have TV sets receiving over-the-air broadcasts.

Nearly 53 percent of coupons requested had been redeemed, and 13 million had expired, the NTIA said.

Podesta's concerns echoed those from other groups calling for a delay in the transition. However, the Electronics TakeBack Coalition took a different approach, saying that delaying the transition could allow TV manufacturers time to come up with better plans for recycling old sets, instead of shipping them overseas.

"Pushing the digital conversion later in 2009 could save millions of toxic old TVs from ending up in our landfills or poisoning workers and children in other parts of the world," Barbara Kyle, the coalition's national coordinator, said in a statement. "Hopefully the incoming Obama administration will delay the conversion, and act to encourage manufacturers to do the right thing and responsibly recycle their old products."

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