Statement of U.S. Representative Edward J. Markey during Floor Consideration of S. 328, Digital TV Legislation

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) made the following statement on the Floor of the House of Representatives: 

"Madam Speaker, I want to commend you for quickly putting this Senate legislation (S. 328) before the House for immediate consideration.  This is a bill that is responsive to the slate of digital television issues confronting consumers and the television industry.

In several weeks, without immediate action, millions of Americans may remain unprepared for the digital television transition.  Madam Speaker, as you know, I have had a long interest in the digital television transition.  I held the very first hearing on "High Definition TV" in October of 1987 - more than 20 years ago.  In 1990, I battled hard and successfully as then-Chairman of the House Telecommunications and Finance Subcommittee to get the Federal Communications Commission to switch from pursuing an "analog" HDTV standard to a "digital" standard.  Moreover, I fought to build into the Telecomm Act in 1996 the appropriate way in which broadcasters could utilize "spectrum flexibility" to multiplex the digital signal into several video programming channels or offer wireless interactive television or information services.  And I pushed unsuccessfully in the context of the 1997 budget battles to prohibit the sale of "analog-only" televisions by the year 2000 - an amendment that was opposed by every Republican in our Committee markup in 1997.  The result was over a hundred million analog-only sets were sold into the marketplace even as the government was stipulating it intended to turn off the analog TV signal.  The failure to mandate "dual tuner" TVs sooner has compounded the difficulty of this transition immeasurably by increasing the base of TV receivers that need converter boxes to receive digital TV signals.

Most recently, for the last two years as the Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee Chairman, I convened six DTV hearings, requested and received three Government Accountability Office (GA0) reports, and wrote numerous oversight letters to the FCC, to NTIA, and to industry and consumer representatives in headlong pursuit of ensuring a successful digital television transition on February 17th.

At the last DTV hearing that we held the second week of September - just after the Wilmington, North Carolina switch-over test - the GAO testified: "NTIA is effectively implementing the converter box subsidy program, but its plans to address the likely increase in coupon demand as the transition nears remain unclear....With a spike in demand likely as the transition date nears, NTIA has no specific plans to address an increase in demand; therefore, consumers might incur significant wait time before they receive coupons as the transition nears and might lose television service during the time they are waiting for the coupons."

In response, I asked the Acting NTIA Administrator to give the Subcommittee a contingency plan for dealing with the expected surge in coupons within 30 days.  Now, that contingency plan did not arrive in 30 days.  Instead, it arrived to us on November 6th - just after Election Day.  The NTIA's "Final Phase" plan did not echo the GAO's alarm bells, but rather stated the following: [quote]

"This Plan demonstrates that the Coupon Program has both sufficient funds and system processing capabilities to achieve this goal....and to do so without the creation a large backlog. Also, NTIA has built flexibility into the Program to respond to various or unexpected events. Moreover, based on actual, cumulative redemption data, NTIA would not exhaust the authorized $1.34 billion in coupon funding despite increased demand leading up to the analog shut-down on February 17th, and, in fact, may return as much as $340 million to the U.S. Treasury."

That's from the NTIA just over two months ago.  "No problem," the agency is saying.  In essence the agency is telling Congress, "We have a plan to deal with the surge and we don't need any more money.  No large backlog.  And we'll have hundreds of millions of dollars left over."

Now, why is this important?  It is important because we were actually in session in November.  We could have acted during the "lame duck" session if the Bush Administration had said, "yes, we will likely have a shortfall", or "please, Congress, let's err on the side of caution and budget a couple hundred million more just in case...".  Yet NTIA told us all just the opposite.  The agency said everything was fine and they didn't need additional money for coupons.

In late December, I asked for an urgent status update on the program.  That's when NTIA wrote back to me - on December 24th - stating that a waiting list was going to begin in January of this year because the coupon program was hitting its funding ceiling.  The agency indicated that to solve this issue and spend up to the $1.34 Billion in the underlying statute for coupons that another 250 million dollars at a minimum might be needed.  And that amount would not necessarily reflect the actual demand for coupons the agency was newly projecting.  The waiting list now represents approximately 3 million coupons.

In an attempt to respond quickly, I reached out the first week we returned here in January to Ranking Member Joe Barton (R-TX) and said if we work together on an accounting fix we could start to address the waiting list issue and get the coupons flowing to consumers again and buy some time.  I want to thank Rep. Barton for his willingness to proceed on such a bill.

But that effort has simply become overtaken by events.  If we passed it and also gave NTIA a couple hundred million dollars for additional coupons in a measure that passed through the House and through the Senate today, and arrived to the President's desk this evening, we simply wouldn't be able to address the backlog and get coupons out to people who have requested them by February 17th.   

Not every media market will be as unprepared as others on February 17th.  I know that in the Boston market, our local commercial and noncommercial broadcasters, as well as our local cable operators, have worked diligently to be ready on February 17th and I commend them for their model efforts.  Yet even in Boston, it is important to note that a recent test brought a flood of calls to consumer call centers from citizens confused about or unprepared for the switchover.  Many other media markets, in part due to the demographic makeup of such markets, will have an even greater risk of significant dislocation without immediate action.  The Bush Administration has simply left us with so little time to make the needed adjustments on a national basis absent a short, one-time delay.

So, although this is the last place we all wanted to be, and in spite of the fact that we toiled mightily to make this effort work, it is my judgment that a short delay is in the public interest in order to protect consumers.  I urge passage of this emergency DTV legislation.

I yield back."


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January 27, 2009

CONTACT: Daniel Reilly (202) 225-2836