Digital TV Delay Fails in House Vote

 
 
By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2009-01-28
 
 
 

House Republicans Jan. 28 managed to stave off another attempt to delay the digital television transition from the looming Feb. 17 deadline to June 12. Taking a brief break from their daylong debate over the stimulus package, lawmakers voted 258-168 to move the digital TV deadline by four months, but a two-thirds majority was required under the House rules.

Responding to President Barack Obama's call for Congress to delay the digital TV transition, the Senate voted unanimously Jan. 26 to move the deadline to June 12, to extend to Sept. 15 the expiration of all outstanding or yet-to-be issued digital converter box coupons and to appropriate $650 million for additional coupons. The NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) announced Jan. 5 that funds for the coupon subsidy program had been exhausted.

After twice failing in the last week to get a DTV delay bill out of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, House officials agreed Jan. 26 to put the Senate version up for a vote. That vote was scratched Jan. 27 but it was put back up for vote Jan. 28, subject to the two-thirds rule.

House Republicans have insisted that the digital transition can be achieved by Feb. 17 and that the coupon program is not out of funds.

"The DTV converter coupon program is not out of money; only half of the $1.5 billion in the coupon program has been spent," Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Jan. 27, urging her to call off the vote. "For the past three weeks, we have known exactly what we need to do in order to get rid of the backlog in requests for DTV converter coupons."

Barton insisted, "This delay is not necessary; nor is the $650 million in the stimulus needed." Barton introduced Jan. 23 a bill to provide additional coupons for the converter box program and to expedite delivery of the coupons.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who crafted and shepherded the Senate digital TV delay legislation after compromising with Senate Republicans to allow television stations to make the switch to digital signals if they elect to before the June 12 deadline, said he was "deeply disappointed" by the House vote.

"While the Senate paved the way with a bipartisan bill to repair this unfortunate situation, our Republican counterparts in the House chose to stand in the way of a workable solution," Rockefeller said in a statement. "Instead of delaying the transition to ensure that the most vulnerable among us have the ability to prepare for the transition, they have made certain that far too many consumers across the country will wake up on Feb. 18 and find that their television sets have gone dark."

If the House ultimately fails to act on a digital TV extension, consumers who solely depend on over-the-air signals for television reception must buy a digital television set or a digital converter box for their analog sets. Consumers who use cable or satellite service are not affected by the change.

According to a Nielsen survey conducted a year ago, 14.3 million U.S. households rely solely on over-the-air broadcasts. The NTIA said, based on consumer self-reporting, 12.6 million households that rely on over-the-air television have requested coupons. As of Jan. 4, though, more than 24 million households have requested approximately 46 million coupons, with about 18 million coupons actually having been redeemed.

To date, 52.5 percent of coupons requested have been redeemed and more than 13 million coupons have expired. The program allows for two $40 coupons per household to help offset the cost of digital converter boxes for nondigital television sets.

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