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1/8/2009
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Obama Asks Congress To Delay Feb. 17 DTV Switchover

The supply of converter boxes, which typically cost between $50 and $80, hasn't kept up with the demand for $40 coupons the government has been sending to consumers.

President-elect Barack Obama on Thursday urged Congress to postpone the Feb. 17 switch from analog to digital television broadcasting as problems with the switchover continued to mount.

In a letter to lawmakers from Obama's transition team co-chair John Podesta, key congressional members were asked to delay the Feb. 17 switchover. While most Americans -- particularly those with cable and satellite reception -- won't be affected by the switch, some 15 million TV watchers have old analog sets that won't deliver the new digital broadcasts without converter boxes.

However, the supply of converter boxes -- which typically cost between $50 and $80 -- hasn't kept up with the demand for $40 coupons the government has been sending to consumers. The coupons can be applied toward the purchase of a converter box, which converts digital signals to analog so reception can be received in old analog TVs.

Obama's action followed a plea Wednesday by Consumers Union, which asked President Bush and Obama to consider delaying the DTV switch.

"The federal government is getting $19 billion from selling the analog TV spectrum while people with analog TVs have to go out and spend their own money for a converter box," said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union, in a statement. "Everyone affected by the digital switch should be able to get their $40 coupons. Congress needs to consider delaying the transition until these problems are fixed."

The government has spent virtually all of the $1.4 billion that was allocated for the program. One problem is that the $40 coupons expire after 90 days, and many coupon holders couldn't find converter boxes at first. When they did, the coupons had expired. Consumers have been placed on waiting lists for the coupons with no clear dates set for their availability.

Consumers Union also questioned whether the call centers established to field the wave of callers on Feb. 17 are prepared to handle the volume of calls that is expected.

The switch involves the 700-MHz spectrum, most of which was auctioned off last year. The spectrum was supposed to provide new competition for mobile phone subscribers, but more than 90% of the spectrum went to entrenched providers Verizon Wireless and AT&T. A piece of the spectrum was supposed to be set aside for use by public-safety organizations, but there were no winning bids for that spectrum, which continues to lie fallow.

The Obama officials said they were also concerned that consumers aren't getting enough help from the government for the DTV switch.

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