DTV update: Obama asks Congress to delay digital switch

Note: This story has been updated to reflect Obama's new stance on the DTV issue.

Consumers Union

The federal program designed to wean Americans off analog-only TV sets was underfunded and mismanaged, writes the Consumers Union in a letter to President Bush, President-elect Barack Obama, and the heads of the House and Senate commerce committees.

On Feb. 17, TV broadcasters will switch to all-digital airwaves, effectively cutting off service to analog televisions that depend on antennas. Consumers can buy a converter box that will translate the new DTV signal into something analog sets will recognize.

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Congress mandated the transition to free up airwaves for next-generation mobile networks and allocated $1.3 billion for coupons to help subsidize the price of converter boxes. But the government announced Monday that the voucher program has run out of money. The feds do not expect that every issued coupon will be redeemed, but they need to wait for the current ones to expire before handing out any more. And with 103,000 names already on a waiting list, Americans may need to wait until after Feb. 17 to receive their $40 vouchers.

"Millions of consumers could now be forced to spend their own money to navigate this federally mandated transition," says the letter from Consumers Union. "This economic climate is not the right time to ask consumers to dig deeper into their own pockets to pay for the miscalculation by the federal government."

Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, chair of the House telecommunications subcommittee, has led the discussions on what to do now. "With the date looming, moving the date back certainly warrants further discussion and may be a wise choice," Daniel Reilly, a spokesman Mr. Markey, told the Washington Post. Mr. Obama's team has remained quiet on the DTV switch.

Update: Mr. Obama's team has joined calls to postpone the DTV transition.
"With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient, and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively-mandated analog cutoff date," John Podesta, co-chair of the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team wrote in the letter, which was sent to leaders of the Senate and House commerce committees. The Washington Post has more.
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