Posted By: Adrian Herbst, The Baller Herbst Law Group, P.C.
Over the past few weeks Congress has debated the prospect of delaying the mandatory shutoff of analog television broadcast, originally set to occur February 17. Following a vote by the House on February 5 to delay the transition date to June 12, and with President Obama’s stated intention to sign such a bill, it is now safe to conclude that DTV transition will in fact be delayed. We have drafted this brief memorandum to highlight a few key points relating to the DTV transition postponement.
The need for the delay apparently lies in several problems. The first relates to the federal converter box subsidy, administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). In the fourth quarter of 2008, it came to light that the converter box subsidy — by which every American could obtain two $40 coupons toward the purchase of equipment enabling them to receive digital broadcast signals and view them on an analog TV — was apparently running out of funds. In response to an inquiry from Rep. Markey (D-MA), NTIA in December 2008 stated that the original estimate of 51.5 million coupons was too low, and that it expected to receive 60 million coupon requests through March 2009. The NTIA started a waiting list as of January 4, 2009, meaning that many consumers would be unlikely to receive their vouchers before February 17.
Second, retailers reported a possible shortage of the converter boxes themselves. NTIA reported that 17 million coupons had been redeemed by December 17, 2008, but only 11 million boxes were anticipated to be available to consumers through June 2009.
Finally, the FCC stated that, based on experience with an early transition trial in Wilmington, Delaware, the FCC’s call center may not be adequately staffed to handle the anticipated flood of calls relating to the transition.
As a result, in January 2009, President Obama asked Congress to consider postponing the DTV transition, and Senate Commerce Committee staff began working on a draft bill.
Opposition emerged immediately, in particular led by Rep. Barton (R-TX), as well as Verizon (Verizon later changed its stance and ultimately supported the bill). Nevertheless, the Senate and House both passed similar versions of the bill, and its next stop is President Obama’s desk.
III. DTV DELAY ACT
The DTV Delay Act (S.352, text available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing_room/dtv_delay_act/ formally moves the DTV transition date from February 17 to June 12, and allows people with expired converter box coupons to apply for new ones. The term of the NTIA coupon program is extended, but additional funding for NTIA to address the converter box coupon shortfall is included not within the DTV delay bill, but in the economic stimulus bill, which is not expected to be signed anytime soon.
IV. EARLY ANALOG SHUTOFF
The DTV Delay Act permits broadcasters to switch from analog to digital prior to June 12, if they wish (consistent with the original DTV transition law and rules), but such stations must follow certain FCC procedures prior to doing so. The FCC is empowered to deny a broadcaster’s request for early transition based on interference or other concerns. The FCC has said that approximately 61% of broadcasters could conceivably transition early and would face no problems with regard to interference. The FCC has informed broadcast stations that want to switch from analog to digital as of the original February 17 date to notify the Commission by February 9.
The major networks – ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX – stated on February 5 that their owned‑and‑operated stations will not switch early, and will wait until June 12. The extent to which affiliate stations and other broadcasters will follow their lead is unclear at this time.
V. RECOMMENDATIONS AND RESOURCES
As the original transition date of February 17 approaches, we expect local government officials be presented with an increasing number of inquiries from citizens on this topic. In addition to sharing information about the delay, as outlined above, we suggest that local officials consider contacting all local broadcasting stations to determine whether any or all of them might intend to shut off analog prior to June 12. In such case, the broadcaster(s) and local government could most effectively prepare area viewers by working together to educate them about timing, ramifications, etc.
In addition, we suggest directing consumer inquiries to the following federal government resources (note, though, that they are unlikely to be updated until President Obama signs the DTV Delay Act into law):
For more information, refer to the federal TV Converter Box Coupon Program website: https://www.dtv2009.gov/