Congress Urged To Postpone Nation's Switch To Digital TV

Analog television sets that rely on antennas will need a converter box like this one to get a picture after Feb. 17, when stations are scheduled to move to digital-only broadcasts.
Analog television sets that rely on antennas will need a converter box like this one to get a picture after Feb. 17, when stations are scheduled to move to digital-only broadcasts. (Pr Newswire)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009; Page D01

Consumers Union is urging Congress to delay the nation's transition to digital television, saying the program to help TV viewers prepare for the switch next month has been underfunded and poorly implemented.

In a letter sent last night to President Bush, President-elect Barack Obama, House Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the consumer advocacy group said Congress should push back the transition "until a plan is in place to minimize the number of consumers who will lose TV signals."

The request comes two days after the federal government said it has run out of money to provide coupons to help offset the cost of converter boxes. Analog television sets that rely on "rabbit ear" or rooftop antennas to receive broadcasts will need a converter box to get a picture after Feb. 17, when all full-powered television stations will stop airing analog signals and move to digital-only broadcasts.

Lawmakers are looking for ways to make sure consumers who need coupons get them in time. "But with the date looming, moving the date back certainly warrants further discussion and may be a wise choice," said Daniel Reilly, a spokesman for Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

As of Sunday, consumers requesting $40 vouchers to help purchase a converter box are being placed on a waiting list, and federal officials warn that TV watchers may not receive the coupons in time for the switch.

A coupon is not needed to purchase a converter box. But with boxes costing $50 to $80 in retail stores, Congress allocated $1.34 billion to provide coupons to help offset the price. Consumers who have a newer digital television or who subscribe to cable or satellite service will not lose programming.

The government-mandated switch to digital television will free up wireless airwaves for public safety agencies and other advanced mobile services. An auction of those analog airwaves raised $19 billion for the government last year. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, was charged with distributing the converter box coupons, which expire after 90 days. But due to the budget shortfall, the NTIA cannot mail out more coupons until already-issued vouchers expire.

"Millions of consumers could now be forced to spend their own money to navigate this federally mandated transition," the letter says. "This economic climate is not the right time to ask consumers to dig deeper into their own pockets to pay for the miscalculation by the federal government. "

Obama's transition team said yesterday that it has not weighed in on whether it would support a delay. Members of Congress are trying to find additional funds for the coupon program and may consider waiving a rule to allow NTIA to issue more coupons without waiting for others to expire.

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission announced $8.4 million in grants to 12 community-based organizations. The grants are intended to reach out to consumers who are most at risk of losing television signals -- senior citizens, people with disabilities, low-income and non-English-speaking households.

But Consumers Union said it is concerned there is not enough time left to reach all at-risk consumers. The group also questioned the ability of the FCC's call centers to handle a flood of calls from confused television-watchers on Feb. 17.

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