Senate bill would postpone DTV switch to June 12

by Leslie Cauley, USA TODAY

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., incoming chairman of the powerful Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, on Thursday proposed legislation that would delay the USA's switch to digital TV nearly four months, to June 12.

"I firmly believe that our nation is not yet ready to make this transition," Rockefeller said in a statement. Any extension also must be approved by the House.

Separately, the House Appropriations Committee recommended $650 million in new funds for the DTV transition.

"We're pleased to see Congress moving so quickly on an issue that will affect millions of consumers," says Chris Murray, a senior lawyer with Consumers Union, which supports a delay.

Congress originally ordered the switch to digital TV to take place on Feb. 17. Congressional action is needed to change the cutover date.

The government's $1.34 billion coupon program for digital converter boxes ran out of money two weeks ago. The program, authorized by Congress, gives households up to two $40 coupons to offset the cost of buying a digital converter box, which turns digital signals into analog. Only TVs that use antennas to get over-the-air signals need boxes. Cable and satellite TV customers aren't affected.

The coupon program is considered core to the switchover. The boxes cost $40 to $70, on average. The coupon program is being overseen by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Since funding ran out, the agency has been putting consumers on a waiting list. As of Thursday, about 2.1 million people were on the list, a twentyfold increase from two weeks ago.

Those supporting a delay include President-elect Barack Obama, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Consumers Union, AARP and telecom giant AT&T. Opponents, including the Consumer Electronics Association trade group and Verizon, argue that a delay would cause even more confusion.

As envisioned by Congress, the cutover was supposed to be a seamless transition that would usher in a new era in TV viewing. Instead, the USA now finds itself in crisis mode. NTIA informed lawmakers in late December that the coupon program was about to run out of money. Congress wasn't in session at the time.

The Federal Communications Commission says it expects to field 2 million calls, at least, on the day the cutover happens.

article originally published at http://www.usatoday.com/money/media/2009-01-15-digital-tv-switch-june_N.htm.

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