Congress Delays Troubled Switch To Digital TV

Joyce Powell of the District and many other customers are discovering that simply using a converter box isn't always enough to get reliable TV signals.
Joyce Powell of the District and many other customers are discovering that simply using a converter box isn't always enough to get reliable TV signals. (Kevin Clark - The Washington Post)
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By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009

Congress yesterday approved a four-month delay in plans to halt analog television, the latest chapter in a troubled effort by the government to clear airwave space for emergency responders and wireless services by moving millions of households to digital television.

Fourteen million households depend on analog broadcasts. Four years ago, Congress mandated that they be converted to digital signals in 2006. That deadline was delayed until Feb. 17 over concern about issues including consumer confusion and lack of equipment.

Nearly all stations already broadcast digital and analog signals. Now, on June 12 broadcasters will be required by law to turn off their analog signals.

As the February deadline grew nearer, consumer groups and broadcasters questioned whether the government was taking the steps needed to help viewers. The Commerce Department responded by assuring Congress that a program to provide households with $40 coupons to buy the converter boxes to receive digital signals was going smoothly. But last month, it acknowledged that the program was out of money.

The Federal Communications Commission has said that centers set up to answer consumer questions about the conversion were understaffed and that the government needed more time.

"There's no way we could have accomplished in the next 14 days what should have been done over the past 24 months," said Michael J. Copps, acting FCC chairman.

Shortly before his inauguration, President Obama asked Congress to delay the deadline. Last month, Nielsen, which tracks TV audiences, found that more than 6.5 million households were not ready for the transition. Many senior citizens and non-English speakers are in that group. More than 3.7 million consumers are on a waiting list to receive coupons.

Additional money for the coupon program is included in the stimulus package making its way through Congress. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communication, Technology and the Internet, said yesterday that the funds would not be available for several weeks.

"It will take some time for that program to be fully reactivated," he said. "It's now important for the FCC to rapidly establish a plan for correcting the problems with staffing its call centers."

By June, consumers who keep their analog televisions will need a converter box to get broadcasts. Subscribers to cable and satellite services should not lose programming.

The later deadline will create some new problems. Local TV stations will have to pay bigger power bills to keep both analog and digital signals on the air. Stations are allowed to cut off analog signals before June 12, and some may do so because of the additional costs.

Copps said that 143 broadcasters have already terminated their analog signals and another 60 stations plan to do so before Feb. 17. But many broadcasters say they are likely to stay on the air until June 12 if their competitors do.

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