House fails to pass bill to delay digital TV transition

The House failed to pass a bill yesterday that would have let broadcasters delay their switch to digital television signals until June 13. The vote means that the switchover is likely to occur on Feb. 17, even though millions of households are believed to be unprepared for the change.

S. 328 the DTV Delay Act, which would give broadcasters and viewers an additional four months to prepare for the switch that could make millions of antenna-equipped sets obsolete, was supported by President Barack Obama and passed in the Senate by unanimous consent Monday. The House vote was 258-168 in favor of the bill, but the measure had been brought up under special rules requiring a two-thirds majority that it did not muster.

It is possible that the bill could be brought up for a regular floor vote under which it could pass with a simple majority, but for now the Feb. 17 deadline established in the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 stands.

Opposition was primarily from Republicans, who voted 155-22 against the bill. Democrats voted 236-13 for it.

Both sides in the argument cited public safety as an issue. Insisting on the transition while millions of households that rely on broadcast signals from local stations are unprepared would leave them without a vital source of information, proponents of the delay argued. A Commerce Department program to assist consumers with the purchase of digital converter boxes for analog TVs has run out of funding, and millions of households are on wait lists for the coupons.

But Republicans said a delay in the transition would also mean a delay in the deployment of public-safety networks that would use of radio frequency (RF) spectrum being freed up by the switch.

The act would have extended the converter-box coupon program run by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration intended to help households purchase the hardware needed to make the transition. The program has reached its funding limit, but is putting consumers on a waiting list as funds from expiring coupons become available. The coupons are worth $40 toward the purchase of a converter box, which can cost from $40 to more than $100. The coupons expire if not redeemed within 90 days; because NTIA began issuing them before converter boxes were commercially available in many locations, only slightly more than half of those issued have been redeemed. Millions have expired. New coupons still are being issued as existing ones expire without being used.

The Nielsen Co. has estimated that 6.5 million households are unready for the transition.

The act also would have extended the licenses for recovered RF spectrum that were auctioned off by the Federal Communications Commission for more than $20 billion in anticipation of the transition. The licenses, and deadlines for building out infrastructure to use the spectrum, would be extended by 116 days.

Commercial TV stations have been broadcasting with digital signals since the 1940s. 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.

TV 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. Because the propagation qualities of digital signals are different from those of analog, new antennas also might be needed in some households and quality of reception could be affected depending on the location of the viewer.

That act would not have required broadcasters to delay the switch until June. They would be allowed to turn off analog signals before that with FCC approval, and FCC then could allow the early use of freed-up spectrum that has been set aside for public safety networks.

But the Republican Study Committee report said that provision was likely to have little impact on availability of new spectrum for public safety.

“FCC regulations are extremely burdensome and make it unlikely that a number of broadcasters will be able to end their analog broadcasts early,” the report said. “Additionally, public safety officials may only use spectrum if broadcasters on that station have transitioned voluntarily and will not cause interference, so it remains unlikely many first responders will have access to this spectrum before June 12.”

Rep. Henry Waxman, (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he was disappointed by Republican resistance to the extension.

"Their vote has wasted valuable time and will cause needless confusion for consumers,” he said in a statement. “A clear majority in Congress supports postponing the transition and providing assistance to the millions of households that are unprepared. I am working with the Obama administration and congressional leadership to explore all available options."

Other objections raised by the Republican Study Committee include:

  • A delay from the February 17th DTV deadline would undermine the public outreach that has resulted in widespread recognition of the termination of analog transition next month;
  • Delaying the auction winners from immediate access to the 700 MHz spectrum would result in litigation, hinder broadband deployment and prohibit the advancement of public safety communications capabilities;
  • A delay will not move a single consumer off of the wait list for converter-box coupons and is being used to justify $650 million of handouts in the so-called stimulus bill; and
  • A one-time delay sets a risky precedent making future delays more likely and causing more confusion, litigation and headaches for the American public.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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