- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Broadcasters have spent $1 billion getting the word out about the digital television transition, federal regulators have traveled the country in a media blitz and the government has funded $1.3 billion in subsidies to help prepare households that rely on over-the-air TV.

But Congress, fearing millions of viewers will otherwise be left in the dark, is on track to push back the DTV transition.

The House is expected to sign off Wednesday on a Senate plan that would delay the mandated cutoff from Feb. 17 to June 12 but allow prepared broadcasters to make the switch before then. Several lawmakers and President Obama have been calling for the delay because a federal coupon program to help people upgrade their existing TV sets ran out of money earlier this month.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat and an early advocate of pushing back the transition, called the delay “our only hope of mitigating the negative impact on millions of consumers.”

To help fund additional converter box coupons, Democrats have allocated $650 million in the pending economic stimulus bill for DTV efforts.

An earlier version of the Senate bill was blocked by Republicans who wanted the new date to be optional. It passed unanimously on Monday after the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, reached a compromise with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican.

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 a 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.

Last week, 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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