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House Nixes Digital-TV Transition Delay

The House voted Wednesday against a plan to delay a nationwide transition to digital television by four months to June 12.

House Republicans succeeded in scuttling a bill to delay the transition, which is scheduled for Feb. 17, less than two days after the Senate unanimously passed the plan.

The defeat is a setback for the Obama administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who fear too many Americans are not ready for the switchover.

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The Nielsen Co. estimates 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.

A majority of the House voted to push back the implementation Wednesday but a special set of rules covering the bill required a two-thirds vote to pass.

The vote was 258-168.

With 426 lawmakers voting, the House needed 282 affirmative votes to postpone the transition to digital TV.

Earlier this week, the Senate voted unanimously to delay the transition until June 12.

TV broadcasters have been preparing to ditch their longtime, analog signals in favor of digital transmissions. Once that occurs, older televisions must be retrofitted with a digital converter box to receive signals.

House Republicans said a delay also would burden wireless companies and public safety agencies waiting for the spectrum that will be freed up by the switch, and create added costs for television stations that would have to continue broadcasting both analog and digital signals for four more months.

The Obama administration had no immediate comment on the House vote and the next step remains unclear.

Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Commerce Committee, insisted a postponement is not necessary.

"We could do nothing worse than to delay this transition date," Barton said. "The bill is a solution looking for a problem that exists mostly in the mind of the Obama administration."

Barton led the push to scuttle the bill, which passed the Senate unanimously on Monday night after lawmakers in that chamber struck a bipartisan compromise.

Senate Democrats won over Republican support by allowing broadcast stations to make the switch from analog to digital signals sooner than the June deadline if they chose and permitting public safety agencies to take over vacant spectrum promised to them as soon as it becomes available.

But those concessions did not placate most Republicans in the House. Only 22 Republicans voted for the bill, while 155 voted against it. Among House Democrats, 236 voted for the bill and just 13 voted against it.

Congress in 2005 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 services and interoperable emergency-response networks.

The Obama administration called for the transition date to be postponed after the Commerce Department earlier this month hit a $1.34 billion funding limit for coupons to subsidize digital TV converter boxes for consumers.

The coupon program allows consumers to request up to two $40 vouchers per household to help pay for the boxes, which translate digital signals back into analog ones for older TVs. The boxes generally cost between $40 and $80 each and can also be purchased without a coupon.

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.

The NTIA had nearly 2.6 million coupon requests on a waiting list last week and those people will not receive their coupons before Feb. 17.

Barton, for one, is pushing legislation to fix the coupon program without delaying next month's transition.

Yet Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., author of the bill to postpone the switchover, said a delay is the only way to ensure that millions of Americans don't see their television screens go dark next month.

"The outgoing Bush administration grossly mismanaged the digital television transition and consumers are confused, households are not prepared, and the coupon program for converter boxes is broken," Rockefeller said in a statement after the House vote.

Gene Kimmelman, vice president for federal policy at the Consumers Union, which has been lobbying for a delay, said he hopes House Democrats will bring the bill up again for a regular floor vote, which would only require majority support to pass.

FOX News' Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.