Senate Passes Bill to Delay Transition to Digital Television

(Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP)
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Senate last night approved a four-month delay in the nation's transition to all-digital television to give consumers more time to prepare for the switch.

Broadcasters are scheduled to stop airing analog broadcasts 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, citing evidence that many consumers are not ready. The Nielsen Co. said last week that more than 6.5 million U.S. households are not prepared and could see their television sets go dark next month.

But some Republicans say that changing the date would further confuse consumers and create additional costs for broadcasters who have made extensive preparations to switch next month. Wireless companies and public safety agencies also are waiting for airwaves that will be freed by the transition.

It is unclear if the House will immediately pass the Senate's version of the bill, which does not specify how the costs of a delay would be covered. The House could add its own provisions, which would require further Senate action. It could also waive budget rules and seek funds in the stimulus package.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, urged the House to pass the bill, which would push the transition back to June 12.

"Delaying the upcoming DTV switch is the right thing to do," Rockefeller said. "I firmly believe that our nation is not yet ready to make this transition at this time. The Senate acted responsibly to give the Obama administration time to attempt to bring order to a mismanaged process."

PBS chief executive Paula Kerger said yesterday that a delay would cost public broadcasters $22 million. She said she hoped lawmakers would provide funds to PBS if they proceed with a delay.

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 for converter boxes 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. More than 3 million consumers are on the waiting list for coupons, which will come available as already issued coupons expire.

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