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Obama DTV delay request could postpone 700 MHz buildout: Boucher readies to take over top telecom post from Markey

The telecom leadership facelift in Congress continues as lawmakers suddenly find themselves confronted with President-elect Obama’s request to postpone next month’s digital TV transition, a possible shift that could force wireless providers to wait longer to obtain spectrum they paid nearly $20 billion for in the 700 MHz auction last year.
“We are concerned that a delay of the transition date could postpone investment in and deployment of broadband wireless services and decrease confidence in the auction model for spectrum allocation that has generated billions for the U.S. Treasury,” said Steve Largent, president of cellular industry association CTIA. “In the midst of the current economic struggle, these are important considerations.”
A brief DTV transition delay is less problematic for public safety in light of the still-unsettled state of service rules for the re-auction of 700 MHz spectrum for a national interoperable first responder/commercial broadband network.
Boucher takes over Markey’s post
Meantime, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Markey), a major force on wireless legislation the past two decades, is giving up his post as House telecom subcommittee chairman to head another Commerce panel in a move that further changes the complexion of telecom-high tech leadership in the new, 111th Congress.
Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), another influential telecom lawmaker on the House Commerce Committee who chaired the energy and environment subcommittee that Markey will lead, was named the new telecom subcommittee chairman.
“I am pleased to have the opportunity to chair the subcommittee on communications, technology and the Internet for the 111th Congress,” Boucher stated. “The new position gives me the opportunity to further my work to shape telecommunications policy, including expanding access to broadband and ensuring a successful digital television transition.”
Senators weigh in on DTV delay
Markey, though no longer House telecom subcommittee chairman, sounded every bit the part in calling for prompt congressional consideration of Obama’s request to postpone the scheduled Feb. 17 DTV transition.
“Moving the transition date entails significant logistical challenges,” said Markey. “However, the prospect of leaving millions of consumers in the dark requires Congress to immediately consider the feasibility of the President-elect’s proposal. In addition, Congress should move quickly to address the needs of the millions of American currently on a waiting list for coupons to purchase converter boxes. The Bush administration left us with insufficient notice to address this critical problem on anything other than an emergency basis. But I will work with my colleagues to protect consumers as quickly as possible.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) supports Obama’s campaign to push back the date for the DTV transition.
“I applaud the decision to delay the transition to digital television. The incompetence of the Bush administration means that if we had gone ahead with the switch on Feb. 17, not only would millions of Americans not have gotten the coupons they were promised on time, but millions of Americans would find themselves with no television reception or fewer channels.”
Sanders said he first raised the idea of postponing the DTV transition in a Sept. 19 letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the senior GOP member of the House Commerce Committee, said changing the DTV transition date is a bad idea.
“How disappointing. We don’t need to bail out the DTV transition program because it isn’t failing, and reintroducing uncertainty to the switch will make things worse instead of better,” Barton stated.
The new chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee – Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) – took a different view of the DTV transition dilemma.
“I’ve long believed that there is too much at stake for consumers and for public safety to simply cross our fingers and hope for the best when it comes to the digital television transition. Millions of Americans could be left in the dark if this doesn’t go smoothly,” said Rockefeller. “The Obama administration deserves time to bring order to what has been an appallingly mismanaged process by the Bush administration. I look forward to reviewing the details of the Obama administration proposal with my colleagues, and will support delaying the current date of the DTV transition until we can do it right.”
Analysts at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. Inc. said the Democratic-controlled Congress is apt to support a relatively short DTV transition delay.
“In light of the unexpected coupon deficit, the Obama team’s call for an extension, and recent focus by major consumer groups, we suspect an extension is likely, but we believe the discussion is currently on the order of magnitude of up to three months,” Stifel analysts stated. “We do not believe an extension of this length would significantly affect any of the winning bidders of the 700 MHz spectrum, including most significantly Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility. We believe the broadcasters would be quietly relieved.”
A protracted DTV transition could create problems, though, Stifel analysts warned.
“Once the door is opened to an extension, there is the possibility of it dragging on longer – there will always be some coupon laggards and inadequately staffed call centers – particularly in light of the fact that public safety is not in a position to build out on its spectrum. If it drags on indefinitely, which we’re more skeptical of, this would be a negative for both the cable operators – which would like to see rabbit-ear customers migrate to low-end basic cable programming tiers – as well as the major wireless incumbents that took down the bulk of last year’s 700 MHz spectrum auction. Both companies have stated their plan to use the spectrum for LTE 4G network buildouts, but Verizon Wireless has been the more aggressive of the two publicly, stating their goal to have LTE trials up and running by year-end.”
New looks
All told, the congressional leadership taking on the DTV transition and other telecom-tech issues will have a completely new look.
Whether Boucher will champion consumer and privacy issues with the same fervor as did Markey remains to be seen. Markey, among other things, played a key role in crafting 1993 legislation that authorized spectrum auctions, transferred federal government spectrum to the private sector and created the national regulatory framework for the wireless industry. Moreover, the Massachusetts lawmaker has been a leading proponent of net neutrality.
“With Boucher leading the telecom subcommittee, universal service/access reform, network neutrality, municipal broadband deployment, converter box installation funding and fair-use protections for consumers of legal content will get renewed attention under his leadership,” predicted Jessica Zufolo, an analyst at Medley Global Advisors L.L.C. “The issue of network neutrality, which is a high priority for Boucher and others on the committee, could get attached to the new economic stimulus package in some fashion within the next month, but with so many stakeholders now involved, it’s not clear how their broadband provisions will be addressed in the end.”
Boucher will serve under new House Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who ousted Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) for the post after last November’s elections.

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