By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009
The switch to digital television will go on as scheduled after the House yesterday blocked a bill to delay the date, saying postponing the action would only cause confusion for consumers and increase costs for broadcasters.
The action, coming less than two days after the Senate unanimously voted to move the Feb. 17 switch date to June 12, was a setback for the Obama administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who had pushed for a delay. They have argued that too many Americans are not prepared to tune in to digital broadcasts.
But Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), who led the push to block the bill delaying the transition, said in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that "the DTV transition is neither stuck nor broke," and that the problems can be overcome.
By law, all television broadcasters must shut off analog signals Feb. 17 and air only digital programming in order to free up airwaves for public safety networks and new wireless services.
As a result, viewers who rely on older analog TV sets and antennas to receive broadcasts will need to upgrade to a digital TV set or install a converter box to get signals.
The Nielsen Co. estimates that more than 6.5 million U.S. households that rely on over-the-air broadcast signals, or 5.7 percent of the population, are unprepared for the transition and may see their TV sets go dark next month.
The Obama administration had urged Congress to postpone the transition to give consumers more time to get ready and to address budget shortfalls.
This month the Commerce Department hit a $1.34 billion funding limit for $40 coupons that help consumers pay for digital TV converter boxes, which cost between $50 and $80. Consumers who need coupons are now being placed on a waiting list until already-issued coupons reach their 90-day expiration date, making money available for additional coupons. About 3 million consumers are on the waiting list.
While the clock is ticking toward the Feb. 17 deadline, there is time for lawmakers to make final attempts to push back the date.
The bill was considered in the House yesterday under suspension of the rules, a procedure generally used for noncontroversial items. As a result, the bill saw only a short debate and no amendments were allowed. The vote was 258-168, with most Republicans voting against it. The bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass.
Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees telecommunications issues, said he wants to bring the same bill back to the floor next week under regular order, meaning that it would need only a simple majority to pass.
Ranking members Barton and Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) introduced a bill that would authorize an additional $250 million for the coupon program without delaying the transition.
Barton said going forward with the transition will ensure that public safety agencies get access to the frequencies promised to them, he said.
But Boucher said a delay is needed to make use of $650 million in the stimulus package to fund the coupon program and call centers to assist consumers during the transition.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said he was disappointed "the House chose to stand in the way of a workable solution."