Hold on to those rabbit ears

Bill now going to the House would give government and consumers another four months to prepare for the abandonment of traditional analog signals.

The Senate has passed a bill that would delay the national switch to digital television broadcasting until June 13, giving broadcasters and viewers an additional four months to prepare for the switchover that could make millions of antenna-equipped TV sets obsolete.

S. 328, the DTV Delay Act, also would extend the converter-box coupon program intended to help households purchase the hardware needed to make the transition.

The program, run by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 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 cost from $40 to more than $100.

The DTV act also would extend the licenses for recovered radio-frequency (RF) spectrum that was 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.

The DTV act also would allow broadcasters to switch off analog signals prior to the June 13 deadline if they are ready, and the FCC could allow the use of the early use of freed-up spectrum that has been set aside for public safety networks.

The transition from analog signals, which commercial TV stations have used for broadcasting since the 1940s, 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.

TV sets being manufactured now are equipped to receive digital signals, and many households now that receive cable and satellite TV services 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.

President Obama and some legislators had urged a delay of the transition because loss of TV service could become a public-safety issue.

“Unfortunately, after guarantees that the Bush administration would adequately prepare and protect consumers, only in the last few days have they revealed that funding” for converter boxes “has run out,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a co-sponsor of the DTV act. “While the digital TV transition should happen, this delay is necessary to make up for the lack of preparation.”

Although the NTIA reported earlier this month that coupons had been issued to more than 13.5 million households, only 53 percent have been redeemed and many have expired without being used. This is in part because NTIA began issuing the 90-day coupons before the converter boxes were available for sale in some areas, and in part because of consumers who were confused over what needs to be done to prepare for the transition.

The NTIA said that 97 percent of Americans are aware of the transition. But Klobuchar cited a Consumer Reports survey that found that 63 percent of people had serious misconceptions about it. Because of this confusion, the FCC expects to receive about 1.5 million calls in the days immediately following the transition, and the current capacity of its call center is about 350,000 a day. The FCC has released a request for proposals for outside call center assistance.

Despite these concerns, outgoing Commerce Department secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez said in a Jan. 14 letter to congressional leaders, warned against delay.

“This transition is of critical importance to the economy and public safety, since it will provide new communications frequencies for commercial wireless broadband services and our nation’s first responders,” Gutierrez wrote.

Two Democratic FCC commissioners urged a delay saying the nation is ill prepared for the changeover.

“We are nowhere near where we should be,” commissioners Jonathan S. Adelstein and Michael J. Copps (now acting FCC chairman) wrote Jan. 16 week to House and Senate chairman overseeing the transition. “While the FCC and others have been scrambling recently to ramp up their DTV efforts, the late start has led to a rushed effort with little room for strategic thinking or for anticipating and fixing problems that have arisen.”

The commissioners said they do not advise delay for delay’s sake. “Any delay must be used to better prepare the American people for the DTV transition,” they wrote.

It now is up to the House to decide whether the DTV transition will be delayed.

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