House, Senate Approach Digital TV Delay Bill

 
 
By Roy Mark  |  Posted 2009-01-23
 
 
 

Lawmakers appeared Jan. 23 to be nearing a deal that would allow television stations to move forward with the digital television transition on a voluntary basis while moving the mandatory shutdown of analog broadcasting from Feb. 17 to June 12.

Then President-elect Barack Obama told lawmakers Jan. 8 that Congress should delay the Feb. 17 transition date for television stations to begin exclusively broadcasting in digital. Obama's comments came after the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) announced that funding has been exhausted for the $1.34 billion digital converter box coupon program.

Prompted by Obama's call for a delay, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, introduced legislation Jan. 15 to push the DTV transition to June 12. Jan. 15 to push the DTV transition to June 12. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, prepared similar legislation, but neither bill gained traction in the face of Republican opposition to changing the transition date.

Rockefeller said Jan. 22 he had reached a compromise with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, to retain the extension of the digital transition date to June 12 but granting broadcasters the right to make the transition before the deadline.

"The shameful truth is that we are not poised to do this transition right. We are only weeks away from doing it dreadfully wrong-and leaving consumers with the consequences," Rockefeller said. "The coupon program that was designed to help consumers defray the cost of converter boxes to ensure the continued functioning of their analog television sets has a waiting list of over 2 million. This number will multiply to millions more in the weeks ahead. Making a difficult situation even worse, we also face the frightful specter of converter box shortages."

Rockefeller added that while consumer surveys show widespread awareness of the digital TV transition, 63 percent of Americans have major misconceptions about just what steps they need to take to prepare for the transition.

"Calling centers at the Department of Commerce and Federal Communications Commission are ill-equipped to deal with the avalanche of calls that are expected on Feb. 17 and in the days and weeks after," Rockefeller said. "Consumers will be on their own, forced to navigate through the messy rubble of a botched transition."

The Senate is expected to vote on the compromise bill the week of Jan. 26. Waxman is expected to follow Rockefeller's lead in fashioning a compromise with Republicans.

House Republicans, though, are still adamant about changing the transition date. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, introduced legislation Jan. 23 that would keep the Feb. 17 transition deadline but would authorize $250 million for use in resuming timely distribution of the digital converter box coupons.

"The choice is simple. We can stall everything without clearing the waiting list, delay a revolution in public safety and wireless broadband spectrum, cost broadcasters and industry a fortune in added preparations for a new transition deadline, and spend at least $650 million in stimulus money to pick up the pieces," Barton said in a statement. "Or we can pass this simple bill and fix the problem right now."

The program allows for two $40 coupons per household to help offset the cost of digital converter boxes for nondigital television sets. Consumers with digital television sets or televisions connected to cable or satellite boxes will not be affected by the transition.

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