Senate Nears Deal To Delay Digital TV

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009

Key senators have reached a compromise on a bill that would delay the nation's switch to all-digital television from next month until June 12. A vote on the legislation is expected early next week.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, has been working with ranking member Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), to draft legislation that also would give consumers more access to coupons for the converter boxes needed to continue receiving broadcasts.

Television broadcasters are scheduled to turn off analog signals Feb. 17. Consumers with an analog television will need a converter box to get broadcasts. People with digital televisions or cable or satellite service will not lose programming.

President Obama earlier this month urged Congress to postpone the transition due to mounting evidence that consumers are not prepared.

The Nielsen Co. said Thursday that more than 6.5 million U.S. households are still not prepared for the upcoming transition and could see their television sets go dark next month.

"The shameful truth is that we are not poised to do this transition right," Rockefeller said in a statement. "We are only weeks away from doing it dreadfully wrong -- and leaving consumers with the consequences."

Some Republicans say that changing the date would further confuse consumers and create additional costs for broadcasters who have made preparations to switch next month. Wireless companies and public safety agencies are also waiting on the spectrum that will be vacated during the transition.

But Hutchison expressed support for Rockefeller's bill, in part because he agreed not to seek another delay, she said.

The bill would allow broadcasters to turn off analog signals before the June 12 deadline, and public safety agencies would be allowed to use those airwaves as soon as they are available. The bill would also allow consumers with expired coupons to re-apply for new ones.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is running the coupon program, has hit its $1.34 billion funding limit and is now sending out new coupons only as unredeemed vouchers reach a 90-day expiration date. Nearly 3 million consumers are on the waiting list for coupons.

The House put off action on its own version of a bill to delay the switch until the Senate reached an agreement on legislation.

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