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Opposition hardens over proposal to delay DTV switch: Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility 700 MHz buildouts hang in the balance

Senate Democratic leaders today are scrambling to fast-track passage of a bill that would delay the digital TV transition until June 12, but congressional and industry opposition could make a longer, drawn-out fight more likely.
The controversy generated last week by President-elect Barack Obama’s request to Congress to push back the Feb. 17 DTV transition deadline, owing to a variety of problems, has quickly mushroomed into a high-level political firestorm involving a mix of influential stakeholders. John Podesta, co-chair of the Obama-Biden presidential transition team, today reiterated the call to delay the DTV switch in a letter to key lawmakers.
Congressional Democrats and a leading consumer group support Obama’s proposal.
But there is significant opposition to varying degrees.
The mobile-phone industry – which spent nearly $20 billion on 700 MHz frequencies that broadcasters will surrender as part of the DTV transition – largely opposes a transition delay. The wireless industry’s largest player Verizon Wireless warned such a move would hinder its efforts to roll out Long Term Evolution-based services later this year, while No. 2 player AT&T Mobility said it would support a delay that preferably lasts no longer than 90 days. The two wireless providers were the largest winners of licenses in the 700 MHz auction last year.
Congressional Republicans share the concerns of the mobile-phone and consumer electronic sectors over potential consequences of a DTV transition delay.
Public-safety organizations want lawmakers to exclude from any delay 700 MHz frequencies assigned to first responders. Broadcasters oddly have remained silent on the issue.
New deadline proposed
Late Thursday, new Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) introduced legislation to extend the DTV transition deadline a little more than three months.
“The outgoing Bush administration has mismanaged this initiative and President-elect Obama has asked Congress to delay the date of the transition,” Rockefeller said. “Over two million Americans are waiting to receive a coupon to help them offset the cost of equipment that will help them manage the transition – millions more don’t have the proper information they need. . It did not have to be this way. This is why today I have introduced a bill to delay the date of the DTV transition to June 12, 2009. I firmly believe that our nation is not yet ready to make this transition.”
House Democrats are working on a similar bill, while GOP lawmakers led by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) are crafting a targeted measure that would fix a glitch in the TV converter box coupon program without moving the DTV transition date.
It is unclear whether the Rockefeller bill includes the carve-out requested by public-safety groups.
“Without a delay, more than 10 million consumers that depend on free, over-the-air television could lose their access to vital news and emergency information on February 17,” said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union. “The people most likely to lose television service are among the most vulnerable, including the elderly and the poor. We’re very pleased to see legislation in Congress to address the problem.”

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