WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Monday voted unanimously to postpone the upcoming transition from analog to digital television broadcasting by four months to June 12 -- setting the stage for Congress to pass the proposal as early as Tuesday.
Monday's Senate vote is a big victory for the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress, who have been pushing for a delay amid growing concerns that too many Americans won't be ready for the currently scheduled Feb. 17 changeover.
The Nielsen Co. estimates that more than 6.5 million U.S. households that rely on analog television sets to pick up over-the-air broadcast signals could see their TV sets go dark next month if the transition is not postponed.
"Delaying the upcoming DTV switch is the right thing to do," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., author of the bill to push back the deadline. "I firmly believe that our nation is not yet ready to make this transition at this time."
The issue now goes to the House, where Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has vowed to work with House leaders to bring Rockefeller's bill up for a floor vote on Tuesday.
President Barack Obama earlier this month called for the transition date to be postponed after the Commerce Department hit a $1.34 billion funding limit for government coupons that consumers may use to help pay for digital TV converter boxes. The boxes, which generally cost between $40 and $80 each and can be purchased without a coupon, translate digital signals back into analog ones for older TVs.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the arm of the Commerce Department administering the program, is now sending out new coupons only as older, unredeemed ones expire and free up more money. The NTIA had nearly 2.6 million coupon requests on a waiting list as of last Wednesday.
Jonathan Collegio, vice president for the digital television transition for the National Association of Broadcasters, argues that the Nielsen numbers may overstate the number of viewers who are not ready for the digital transition. He noted that the numbers exclude consumers who have already purchased a converter box but not yet installed it, as well as those who have requested coupons but not yet received them.
What's more, consumers who subscribe to cable or satellite TV service or who own a TV with a digital tuner will not lose reception.
Still Gene Kimmelman, vice president for federal policy at Consumers Union, argues that millions of Americans -- particularly low-income and elderly viewers -- will pay the price because "the government has failed to deliver the converter boxes these people deserve just to keep watching free, over-the-air broadcast signals."
In 2005, Congress required broadcasters to switch from analog to digital signals, which are more efficient, to free up valuable chunks of wireless spectrum to be used for commercial wireless services and interoperable emergency-response networks.
Republicans in both the House and Senate have raised concerns that a delay would confuse consumers, burden wireless companies and public safety agencies waiting for the airwaves that will be vacated and create added costs for television stations that would have to continue broadcasting both analog and digital signals.
Paula Kerger, president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service, estimates that delaying the digital TV transition to June 12 would cost public broadcasters $22 million.
But Rockefeller managed to ease some of these concerns by allowing broadcast stations to make the switch from analog to digital signals sooner than the June deadline if they choose and by permitting public safety agencies to take over vacant spectrum that has been promised to them as soon as it becomes available.