- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2009

Congress is one step closer to delaying the transition to digital television, despite fears it might confuse consumers, after a compromise in the Senate that paves the way for a floor vote next week.

Democrats, including President Obama, have called for the delay out of concern that millions of viewers would be left in the dark after a $1.5 billion government subsidy program to help people upgrade their existing TV sets ran out of money.

The Senate bill, written by Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV, would push back the transition deadline to June 12 from Feb. 17. But after Republicans moved to block it last week, the West Virginia Democrat reworked the legislation late Thursday, making the extension optional for broadcasters rather than mandatory.

The bill, now supported by the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, has been put on a fast track, with Majority Leader Harry Reid planning to bring it to a vote on the floor next week. If passed, it will go to the House, where Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, supports a delay.

“The transition to digital television is not going well,” Mr. Waxman said this week after he postponed a markup of a House proposal to delay the switch in response to the Republican opposition in the Senate. “Without a short, one-time extension, millions of households will lose all television reception.”

Proposals to push back the transition have sparked criticism from former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin as well as electronics manufacturers and public safety agencies that are waiting to take control of the wireless spectrum being freed up for interoperable communications.

Government and private entities alike have spent millions over the past year alerting consumers to the federally mandated switch from analog to digital signals, which provide a better-quality picture and take up less wireless spectrum.

The transition only affects households that rely on over-the-air, analog broadcasts. To continue receiving TV signals after the switch, affected viewers must take one of three actions: purchase an digital-to-analog converter box, subscribe to cable or satellite services, or buy a TV set that already has a digital tuner.

Households opting for a converter box, which costs between $50 and $70, have been eligible for up to two $40 vouchers under a federal coupon program. But those funds dried up earlier this month, raising concerns from the Obama administration and some lawmakers that many households could find themselves unprepared.

On Thursday, the Nielsen Co. estimated more than 6.5 million U.S. households are still not ready for the transition.

Critics of congressional efforts to put off the switch say doing so would cause widespread confusion.

“Any delay to the transition date would cause massive confusion among the more than 90 percent of Americans who have already taken the necessary steps to prepare,” Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, said earlier this month.

Mr. Martin, who as chairman of the FCC helped coordinate the transition with Congress and the Commerce Department, echoed that sentiment at a Consumer Electronics Show panel this month.

“We’ve spent a lot of time and energy getting ready for the February 17 date,” Mr. Martin said, adding that he was “concerned” about the confusion a delay would create.

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