LAS VEGAS — The head of the Federal Communications Commission sharply disagreed Saturday with President-elect Barack Obama’s call to delay the scheduled switchover to all-digital television next month, warning that pushing back the transition would confuse Americans and put wireless companies at a significant disadvantage.
During a question-and-answer session at the International Consumer Electronics Show, the commission’s chairman, Kevin J. Martin, acknowledged that “ultimately, this is Congress’ decision.”
But “we’ve spent a lot of time and energy getting ready for the February 17 date,” he said. “I am concerned about the consumer confusion that would be created.”
The disagreement comes just more than a month before all of the country’s full-power TV stations will have to switch off their over-the-air analog signals. The switchover to all-digital transmission will turn screens blank in 8 million or so U.S. households that rely on outdoor antennas or rabbit ears to get a picture on every set bought before 1998 and most bought before about 2004.
Obama asked Congress on Thursday to postpone the switch after the government’s program offering $40 coupons to buy digital converter boxes ran out of money with more than 1.1 million Americans still on a waiting list.
Because of the failure of coupon program, as many as 7 percent of the nations’ households are “completely unready” for the switch, despite widespread coverage and near-weekly tests that temporarily blacked out many viewers’ sets, according to a study by Nielsen Media Research.
“This is something that they need to act fast on,” Martin said.
DTV a ‘huge challenge’
The transition has been “a huge challenge for the industry,” Martin said. It has also divided consumer advocates and broadcasters.
“We feel that a small delay of perhaps three or four months, tops, would help us get more roots on the ground, make sure the most at-risk and vulnerable consumers get their converter boxes hooked up,” said Chris Malloy, legislative counsel for the nonprofit Consumers Union.
But most broadcasting companies have not budgeted for analog transmissions after Feb. 17, leaving them in a potentially expensive bind.
“It will cost broadcasters money, because they will have to continue operating two transmitters, one for the digital signal,” said Mark Allen, president of the Washington State Broadcasters Association.
Michelle Vetterkind, president of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, said Congress should bite the bullet and go ahead with the scheduled switch.
“No matter when the deadline is, there will always be some who are not going to be prepared,” Vetterkind said.
Wireless firms ready to go
Martin said delaying the switch would also damage telecommunications companies that bought the soon-to-be-freed-up analogue bandwidth, notably cell phone companies that plan to use it for next-generation 4G broadband networks.
Besides emergency services that say they desperately need the analog bandwidth, “we have a lot of other people that are anxious to begin building out their wireless networks,” he said.
But the biggest victims would be the very consumers who research shows are not ready for the deadline, Martin said.
“The concern is that whatever date we pick again, people won’t believe,” Martin said. “What kind of a message will that send if we’ve been telling everyone that is the date and we don’t do it?”
Martin acknowledged problems with the coupon program but said they were not enough to stop the switchover. Besides the unavailability of sufficient money, the program has also been criticized for limiting how long consumers can use the coupons.
“The constant complaint I hear is that the coupons expire after only 90 days,” he said. “I think that it is important for us to try to solve the coupon program without moving the date.”
Martin, who was appointed in 2005 by President George W. Bush, has been a controversial figure as head of the FCC. He has been criticized by congressional Democrats and even by some of his colleagues on the commission for what they characterize as his high-handed manner that does not seek consensus.
Asked whether he hoped to stay on as chairman after Obama takes office on Jan. 20, Martin, whose term on the FCC expires in 2011, laughed and said he fully expected to be replaced as chairman.
NBC stations KBJR of Duluth, Minn.; KNDU of Kennewick, Wash.; WTMJ of Milwaukee; and WTVJ of Miami contributed to this report.