Several press reports were issued today suggesting that there is at least some consideration in Congress of delaying the DTV transition now scheduled to be completed on February 17. The consideration stems from the announcement that the NTIA (the National Telecommunications and Information Administration) had run out of money to issue the $40 coupons to consumers to subsidize the purchase of converters that allow analog television sets that receive over-the-air signals to process digital signals so that these sets can continue in operation after February 17. While NTIA has not actually spent all the money Congress has allotted for the converter boxes, as almost half of the coupons that have been issued have not been redeemed, NTIA is required to withhold the money until the coupons have either been spent or expired (the coupons are good for only 90 days). Thus, while some people may still be able to receive the coupons in the future after currently issued coupons expire without having been used, it may be too late for consumers to use those coupons to buy a converter box before the February deadline. Fearing that some groups will be disenfranchised by the loss of television service, the Consumers Union sent a letter to Congress (here) asking that the transition be delayed until coupons can be made available to all who need them, and reports indicate that Congressman Markey’s office (who heads the House Subcommittee that deals with broadcast issues) is considering that request.
Could a delay really occur? While broadcasters have been diligently working to meet the deadline, a delay could allow implementation of some of the last minute technical fixes for areas that may lose service because of the transition (as we suggested here in our discussion of the recently approved analog nightlight, Digital low power translators, and distributed transmission service that were recently permitted). Some may oppose the delay but, with the nightlight already delaying the availability of the open spectrum for 30 days, a brief delay really would not make all that much difference. Those planning on using the vacated spectrum within the TV band for "white spaces" devices cannot do so yet because of additional regulatory issues that must be addressed (see our post here). The principal parties who would be disadvantaged by the delay would be those who bought at an FCC auction the spectrum being cleared by the move of TV stations currently operating on channels 52 and above into lower channels in the DTV ‘core". Would Congress be willing to put the new services planned by these spectrum buyers on ice while the last-minute DTV issues get ironed out? The next few days may provide an answer as we see if these rumors are just a case of last minute nerves, or if they represent a real attempt to provide time to smooth out the digital transition.