Transition to digital TV delayed until June

House passage of the DTV Delay bill, expected to be quickly signed into law, moves transition deadline to June 12, but stations are expected to begin the switch earlier.

The House this afternoon voted to push back by four months the deadline for a transition to digital television that could make millions of antenna-equipped TV sets obsolete.

S.352, the DTV Delay Act, moves the deadline for broadcasters to switch off analog signals from Feb. 17 to June 12. It passed on a vote of 264-158, largely along party lines with Republicans opposing the measure.

It now goes to the president for his signature. President Obama, who has supported a delay in the transition, is expected to sign.

The act will not prevent broadcasters from shutting off analog signals prior to June, with approval from the Federal Communications Commission, and hundreds are expected to do so. This will likely will result in a patchwork system of analog and digital TV broadcasts for several months.

The transition from analog signals was mandated in the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005. New digital technology is more efficient, allowing more data to be transmitted in narrower bands, and the transition will free up large blocks of RF spectrum. Making this spectrum available is seen as crucial for the development of new commercial wireless services, including delivery of broadband Internet access to currently unserved and underserved areas, as well as for the creation of an interoperable, national public safety network that would allow first responders from different regions to communicate more easily during emergencies.

Television sets being manufactured now are equipped to receive digital signals, and many households now relying on cable and satellite TV systems will not be affected by the broadcast transition. But there are an estimated 14 million households that still rely on broadcast signals, and those without modern sets will lose the service without a converter box. Reports that as many as 6.5 million households are not ready for the transition and that TV sets in those households could go black on Feb. 17 were among reasons for delaying the transition.

“We are not ready for this transition,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said during floor debate. Democrats said that the transition program had been botched by the previous administration and that not enough education and resources had been made available.

The possibility of consumer confusion in a patchwork TV environment, as well as a desire to turn over to new owners the recovered RF spectrum now being used by analog broadcasts were reasons many Republicans opposed the delay.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said that 143 stations already have shut off analog signals early, and said that 61 percent of broadcasters probably would make the move before June 12.

“We on the Republican side want the DTV transition to go forward,” Barton said during floor debate on the rules for considering the act. “We want to see the spectrum released to the first responders.”

Spectrum being given up by TV broadcasters was auctioned off last year by the FCC for about $20 billion. The act will extend the licenses of the new owners for that spectrum. The licenses, and deadlines for building out infrastructure to use the spectrum, would be extended by 116 days.

The act also extends the stalled converter box coupon program intended to help households purchase the hardware needed to make analog television sets compatible with the new digital signals. The program, run by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, has reached its funding limit but is putting consumers on a wait list as funds from expiring coupons become available. The coupons are worth $40 toward the purchase of a converter box, which cost from $40 to more than $100.

The bill originally was passed by unanimous consent the Senate last week but failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority when brought up in the House under special rules. It was quickly reintroduced and passed in the Senate, then moved to the House for another vote under rules requiring a simple majority for passage.

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