The U.S. House of Representatives Feb. 4 voted 264-158 to move the digital television transition from Feb. 17 to June 12, joining the U.S. Senate in approving a 115-day delay for television stations to begin exclusively broadcasting in digital.
Democrats cast 241 votes for the digital TV transition delay while House Republicans voted solidly against the delay with 148 casting negative votes. The legislation now heads to the White House, where President Obama is expected to sign the delay into law.
“This delay is absolutely necessary and will be for one time only,” said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House Telecom Subcommittee. “We are now less than two weeks from the Feb. 17 digital television transition date, and millions of households remain unprepared.”
Boucher said the most recent Nielsen survey showed 5.7 percent of the viewing public, or 6.5 million households, are “totally unprepared” for the digital transition. In order for consumers to receive digital television signals, 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.
Prompted by a Jan. 5 announcement by the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) that funds for the $1.34 billion subsidy digital converter box program were exhausted, Obama and Democrats in the House and Senate immediately began clamoring for a delay, insisting that sticking to the Feb. 17 deadline would create consumer confusion.
“If almost 6 percent of the nation’s households lose all TV service, I think most people would declare the digital TV transition to be a failure,” Boucher said. “It’s clear that the only way to avoid a massive disruption affecting 5.7 percent of the TV viewing public is to delay the transition and provide the funding to assure that, when it occurs, it occurs smoothly.”
The DTV delay bill does not include any funds for additional digital converter boxes, but the House stimulus package passed Jan. 28 includes $650 million for more coupons. Democrats also said the Federal Communications Commission’s call centers to handle the digital TV transition question were woefully ill-prepared.
Not Enough Time to Make Plan Work?
“Beyond the converter box program, which is at a standstill, more resources will be needed to staff the FCC’s call centers, where waiting times are very long, calls are frequently disconnected and it is very difficult to speak to a live technical service representative,” Boucher said. “Only by delaying the transition and utilizing the $650 million contained in the economic recovery bill to address these problems can massive viewer disruption be avoided.”
While Senate Republicans raised few objections to the delay, House GOP members bitterly opposed the move, claiming the nation was as ready as it could be for the digital transition. “If the new standard is 100 percent [readiness], we’re not going to be there on June 12 or June 12, 2010,” said Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.).
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the former chairman of the House Telecom Subcommittee and current ranking member, insisted a $250 million infusion into the digital converter box fund would facilitate keeping the Feb. 17 deadline.
“The DTV converter coupon program is not out of money; only half of the $1.5 billion in the coupon program has been spent,” Barton said. “This delay is not necessary, nor is the $650 million in the stimulus needed.”
Boucher, though, said there is not enough time left before Feb. 17 to make Barton’s plan work.
“The provision of more money now without moving the transition date would not avoid viewer disruption,” Boucher said. “It takes one week to process 1.6 million coupon requests, and so in the 13 days before the transition, the backlog of 3.7 million requests could not be processed even if more money for the program is provided.”
Boucher added that beyond the processing time, more time would be needed for mailing the coupons and even more time would be needed for consumers to receive the coupons and actually redeem the coupons.
The House debate represented the first discussion of the bill in either the House or the Senate. Hearings were not held in either chamber and the Senate version was approved on a unanimous voice vote without discussion.