By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Plans to become a digital nation are in disarray just five weeks before television stations are supposed to shut off analog broadcasts. Consumers do not have quick access to coupons to purchase converter boxes, Congress is toying with postponing the switch, and now a possible way to distribute more coupons may no longer be plausible.
A proposal to change a rule to let a government program distribute more converter box coupons to consumers could be shelved by House Democrats, according to two House aides. The measure has run into opposition because it would probably come too late to ensure that consumers receive coupons before the Feb. 17 transition.
Senate Commerce Committee members are still evaluating the option, a Senate aide said. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because the proceedings are not public.
Some members of Congress are now shifting their efforts. They're drafting legislation to provide additional funding for the coupon program or delay the transition by as much as three months, or both. But House Republicans, in a letter being sent to President-elect Barack Obama this morning, say they oppose a delay and are "working on bipartisan legislation" to allow more coupons to be issued to consumers.
Last week, a top Obama aide asked Congress to consider postponing next month's transition to give consumers more time and resources to get ready for the switch. Stimulus package dollars would be made available for transition efforts, the transition team said.
On Feb. 17, all full-powered television stations are planning to shut off their analog signals and move to all-digital broadcasts. That means older analog TV sets will need a converter box, which costs $50 to $80, to receive over-the-air signals. Consumers with digital TV sets or subscriptions to cable or satellite service will not lose programming. A $1.34 billion federal program to distribute $40 coupons to offset the cost of the converter boxes has reached its funding limit, and officials say the 1.7 million people on the waiting list may not receive the coupons by the transition date.
The coupon program, run by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, started placing consumers on a waiting list Jan. 4. Due to a rule set by Congress, the agency cannot distribute new coupons until already-issued vouchers expire. The coupons are valid for 90 days.
Lawmakers had been looking at the possibility of waiving that rule so the NTIA could issue coupons before others expire. But it is now likely that there may not be enough time to pass such legislation. Stimulus funding may also not be available until after Feb. 17.
A delay could cause headaches for broadcasters that pay tens of thousands of dollars a month to operate both analog and digital signals, and it could interfere with the efforts of the wireless companies to use the airwaves to build faster networks.
Keeping analog signals on the air could double broadcasters' energy bills, and some stations cannot air a full-power digital signal until another station's analog signal goes off the air.
For example, Hagerstown NBC affiliate WHAG-TV will move its digital signal to channel 26 after the transition. But channel 26 is occupied by Washington area public television station WETA. So the Hagerstown station cannot air a full-power digital signal until WETA removes its analog signal.
"This is so complicated," said Howard M. Liberman, a lawyer with Drinker Biddle & Reath. He said most stations have already hired crews to turn off the analog signals and reposition digital antennas. "Logistically it could be very difficult," he said.
Some broadcasters, including ABC, support a delay so consumers will not have to adjust rooftop antennas in winter conditions.
Last year, wireless companies including AT&T and Verizon Wireless spent more than $19 billion to buy the airwaves that will soon be vacated by the analog broadcasts. Those airwaves will be used to provide faster broadband networks for public safety agencies and cellphone users.
In a letter sent to Capitol Hill on Monday, AT&T said it would support a "short delay" in the transition as long as Congress ensures that companies licensing the spectrum will "suffer no other adverse consequences." Verizon Communications said in a letter that a delay could cause more confusion for consumers.