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Experts: Digital-TV Switch Delay May Just Make Bigger Mess

With the clock ticking toward the Feb. 17 deadline for TV broadcasters to shut off their analog signals and go entirely digital, analysts say more than 6.5 million households are not ready.

Now Congress appears poised to postpone the transition to June — but a delay could bring its own problems.

To avoid blacking out TV sets in unprepared homes next month, the Obama administration is seeking the delay to give the government more time to fix a subsidy program that has run out of money for coupons that help consumers pay for digital converter boxes for older TVs.

Senate Democrats late Thursday reached a deal with skeptical Republicans on a bill to push the digital transition to June 12 — setting the stage for a vote early this week. The House is likely to move quickly after the Senate acts.

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But one big problem with extending the transition, critics warn, is that many TV viewers could be confused. A delay could also be expensive for broadcasters. And it could burden public safety agencies and wireless companies waiting for the airwaves that will be freed by the shutdown of analog signals.

Government agencies, consumer groups, television broadcasters and other parts of the industry have invested more than $1 billion over the past several years to educate consumers about the shift to digital broadcasting.

The message all along has been that analog signals would be shut off on Feb. 17.

This aggressive campaign has pushed consumer awareness rates well above 90 percent, according to Megan Pollock, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association.

"We have been working for almost three years to educate consumers that this is the day," Pollock said. "How do we re-create that? It will be hard to start over."

It will also be costly — forcing the government and industry to pour more resources into additional public service announcements and outreach efforts.

For many television stations, a delay would also mean the additional expense of continuing to broadcast both an analog and a digital signal for another four months.

According to Randy Smith, president of WSET, the ABC affiliate in Lynchburg, Va., the electricity bill alone to operate some transmitters can run $20,000 a month.

A delay would also upend carefully mapped transition plans that many stations have had in place for months, if not longer.

WSET, for instance, is broadcasting an analog signal on Channel 13 and a digital signal on Channel 34, and plans to move its digital signal to Channel 13 after the switchover.

Yet it cannot begin construction on a new digital tower until it shuts down the analog one. So for more than a year, WSET has had tower crews and other workers scheduled to begin on Feb. 18.

To address such scenarios, the Senate bill would let TV stations proceed with the analog shutdown early — an option that WSET is considering.

But across the country, in Bend, Ore., Chris Gallu doesn't have that choice. Gallu is general manager of four TV stations in the Central Oregon town, including KTVZ, the NBC affiliate, and KFXO, the Fox affiliate.

To complete the move to digital, his stations are waiting for a larger, more powerful transmitter to arrive from a broadcaster in El Paso, Texas.

But that transmitter won't become available until the El Paso station no longer needs it — and that won't happen until the Texas station switches channel assignments at the government deadline.

TV stations are not the only ones concerned about a delay. The whole reason Congress is requiring broadcasters to go to digital signals is to free up valuable chunks of wireless spectrum for emergency-response networks and commercial wireless services. Both public safety agencies and the wireless industry are anxious for those airwaves to become available.

Emergency responders need the spectrum for "interoperable" communications networks that will allow police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers to talk with each other and with counterparts in nearby communities. Typically such agencies have had their own radio systems and couldn't always communicate with each other.

In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., for instance, Prince George's County, Md., has spent $76 million over the past three years on a new radio system for the police and fire departments, paramedics and municipal public safety agencies.

The county plans to begin six months of testing the system — on frequencies being freed up by the analog shutdown — on Feb. 18.

Wayne McBride, deputy director the county's Office of Homeland Security and Public Safety Communications, said a delay would push back that entire process, which needs to be completed by Oct. 1. After that, leaves fall off the trees, which could throw off the tests of the system's effectiveness — since leaves can interfere with radio signals.

The Senate bill would allow public safety agencies to take over vacated spectrum as it becomes available, but it would not guarantee access to all the promised airwaves until June.

The wireless industry, too, is concerned about the costs of postponing the digital transition. AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. — which won licenses to much of the spectrum being freed up — have both said they would support a one-time, limited delay.

But Qualcomm Inc. is lobbying against a delay. The company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a new wireless service, called MediaFLO, that lets consumers watch live television on their wireless phones.

Qualcomm is already offering the service in 65 markets around the country, where it has been paying broadcasters to drop their analog signals early. And it paid more than $550 million for spectrum being vacated by the digital transition to be able to expand the service in 25 markets, including Boston, Houston, Miami and San Francisco, beginning on Feb. 18.

According to Qualcomm Chief Operating Office Len Lauer, a delay would cost the company tens of millions of dollars — in additional payments to broadcasters to vacate their analog spectrum for another four months and in lost revenue from new markets.

The Senate appeared close to agreement late Thursday on a bill to delay next month's planned transition from analog to digital television broadcasting to June 12 — setting the stage for a vote early next week.

Senate Republicans last week blocked Democratic efforts to push back the Feb. 17 deadline for the analog shutoff. The Democrats cited mounting concerns that too many Americans who rely on analog TV sets to pick up over-the-air broadcast signals won't be ready.

The Nielsen Co. said Thursday that more than 6.5 million U.S. households are still not prepared for the upcoming transition and could see their TV sets go dark next month.

"The shameful truth is that we are not poised to do this transition right," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller, D-W.V., author of the bill to delay the switchover. "We are only weeks away from doing it dreadfully wrong — and leaving consumers with the consequences."

Republicans in both the House and Senate have raised concerns that a delay would confuse consumers, create added costs for television stations that would have to continue broadcasting both analog and digital signals and burden wireless companies and public safety agencies waiting for spectrum that will be freed up by the switch.

But Rockefeller said late Thursday that he had reached a bipartisan compromise and won the crucial support of the committee's top Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

Rockefeller's bill aims to address Republican concerns by allowing broadcast stations to make the switch from analog to digital signals sooner than the June 12 deadline if they choose to — a provision consistent with the current law mandating a Feb. 17 transition.

It would also permit public safety agencies to take over vacant spectrum that has been promised to them as soon as it becomes available.

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.

But 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 coupons to subsidize digital TV converter boxes for consumers.

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 reach a 90-day expiration date and free up more money for the program.

The NTIA had nearly 2.6 million coupon requests on a waiting list as of Wednesday.

If Rockefeller's bill passes the Senate next week, the matter goes next to the House. With the clock ticking down on Feb. 17, the quickest course of action for Congress would be for the House to simply pass the Senate bill.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., postponed a committee vote on his own proposal to delay the digital transition earlier this week, saying he wanted to wait and see how the debate plays out in the Senate.