Digital TV conversion delayed until June 12

by Ryan Kim, San Francisco Chronicle

Television viewers who rely on sets with antennas to pick up their broadcast signals have about four extra months to get ready for the nation's switch to digital TV.

The House of Representatives voted 264 to 158 today to move back the Feb. 17 deadline to June 12, sending the fast-tracked legislation to President Obama, who has promised to sign it. The vote, largely along party lines, gives approximately 6.5 million unprepared households more time to prepare for the day when all analog TV broadcasts are turned off.

"We are not ready for this transition," said U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, during the House debate. "We can fix these problems and minimize this catastrophe if we pass this legislation."

The Senate first passed the bill unanimously last week and then resubmitted it after a corresponding House vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed. Wednesday's House vote required a simple majority.

Consumers who rely on traditional over-the-air broadcasts will need to upgrade to a pay TV service such as cable or satellite, use a TV with a digital tuner or buy a converter box for their older analog television sets.

The bill passed by the House does not include new money for a federal program aimed at providing viewers $40 coupons toward a converter box, which can cost $40 to $80. The program has dispensed its allotment of $1.34 billion worth of coupons and is waiting for unused coupons - good for 90 days - to expire before issuing new vouchers.

About 3.5 million requests are now on the waiting list. The new legislation also allows consumers to reapply for a coupon if their vouchers have expired.

Obama's stimulus package includes $650 million for the converter box coupons, but Republicans argued the money will not be available for weeks if not months.

Opponents of the delay said the new transition date only adds more confusion, delays the handover of old spectrum to emergency first responders and doesn't come with money of its own for the coupon program. Some Republicans took issue with the Democrats' streamlined approval process for the bill, which prevented representatives from amending the legislation and adding funding for the coupons.

"We're delaying a hard transition today without any additional money or any way to send out additional coupons," said Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Commerce Committee. "How silly is that?"

The delay does not mean every station will continue to broadcast in analog. Broadcasters will be permitted to shut off their analog transmission before June 12. That creates a potential uneven transition for analog viewers, who might still lose some channels, depending on what local stations decide to do.

Despite that scenario, proponents said the delay was necessary to not only disburse more coupons but also help educate them about issues that arise from the transition.

"We knew there was going to be some challenges moving forward even if the date is moved, but this allows ut so get more information and assistance to folks," said Mark Lloyd, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund.

For more information about the transition to digital TV, go to www.dtv.gov, or call 1 (888) 388-2009.

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