Congress Delays Troubled Switch To Digital TV

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.

In addition, public safety agencies across the country say the delay threatens their plans to build what they call essential new radio systems, creating communication problems with other first responders. The FCC is meeting today to discuss how to deal with any confusion the changes may cause.

In 2005, Congress passed the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act, mandating that broadcasters vacate their analog airwaves to make room for first responders and commercial wireless companies who said they needed more capacity over the air.

Telecom companies such as Verizon Wireless and AT&T bought licenses for soon-to-be-vacated airwaves, raising more than $19 billion for the government. Broadcasters also expected the higher-quality digital programs to help them compete with cable and satellite providers.

Concern that the most vulnerable consumers were likely to own analog televisions led to the creation of a $1.34 billion coupon program to help pay for the converter boxes. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, was put in charge of the effort.

More than 47 million coupons have been sent out, but the program confused consumers, requiring them to use the coupons during a certain time period. Because of the program's budget shortfall, new coupons cannot be mailed out until already-issued ones reach their 90-day expiration date.

Last month Obama's call for a delay was echoed by consumer groups, some broadcast networks and Democratic lawmakers. AT&T and Verizon Wireless said that a one-time delay of the transition would not hurt their plans to use the airwaves for their own advanced wireless products.

But Qualcomm opposed the delay. The company paid more than $500 million to access the digital airwaves, said Qualcomm chief operating officer Len J. Lauer. "It breaks an agreement we had with the government."

Republicans who opposed the bill argued that postponing the switch would undermine plans by public safety agencies to use the freed airwaves. Harlin McEwen of the International Association of Chiefs of Police said "it would be better if there wasn't any delay for public safety because there are agencies planning to use that spectrum on Feb. 18."

Public safety agencies can use airwaves as they become available.

"I'm so disappointed," said Wayne McBride, deputy director for public safety communications in Prince George's County. The new deadline will delay the county's plans to use the old analog airwaves to create an emergency response radio system for police and firefighters that will be interoperable with systems in surrounding counties. The county has spent $76 million to buy equipment and build the system but cannot start testing it until broadcasters vacate the airwaves, McBride said.

Some broadcasters say the delay will be expensive. Christopher Lane, vice president of technology and engineering at WETA, Washington's public television station, said keeping the analog signal will cost $20,000 a month. "But we can't be the only broadcaster in the market not to be broadcasting. It puts us at too much of a disadvantage."

Washington's Fox affiliates, WTTG and WDCA, will continue to pay power bills of $30,000 a month to keep two analog signals for an extra four months. Both stations have finished working on the towers and transmitters for the Feb. 17 deadline, said Jeff Andrew in the affiliates' engineering department.

The bill to postpone the switch first passed the Senate last week. Two days later, House Republicans blocked the bill from getting the two-thirds majority needed to pass under the rules applied to the legislation.

On Thursday the Senate passed the same bill that had failed in the House, which gave the House another vote, this time needing only a simple majority to pass. The House voted yesterday 264 to 158 to approve the delay.

Staff writer Peter Whoriskey contributed to this report.

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