Congress appears poised to grant a four-month delay in the upcoming shutdown of analog TV broadcasts, though broadcasters still will be allowed to go all-digital earlier if they want.
The House is expected to vote as soon as Wednesday on a bill that would shift the analog TV shutdown to June 12 from Feb. 17. The Senate unanimously approved the idea Monday night, in a victory for the Obama administration and Democratic lawmakers who argue that too many Americans wouldn’t be ready to get digital broadcasts by Feb. 17.
The Nielsen Co. estimates that more than 6.5 million U.S. households that rely on analog sets to pick up over-the-air broadcast signals could see their TVs go dark next month if the transition is not postponed. People who subscribe to cable or satellite TV, or have a newer TV with a digital tuner, are not affected.
Speaking on the House floor late Tuesday, Rick Boucher, D-Va., chairman of the House Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said Congress must delay the switch because “we simply cannot permit the level of dislocation that would otherwise occur” next month.
Democrats will need the support of at least two-thirds of House members to pass the Senate bill, which is sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. The bill has run into opposition from some key House Republicans, including Joe Barton, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Commerce Committee.
During a House floor debate Tuesday night, Barton said a delay would be “a solution looking for a problem.”
Barton argues that postponing the transition date would confuse consumers and burden the wireless companies and public safety agencies that are waiting to use the airwaves that will be freed by the shutdown of analog TV broadcasts. The shift to entirely digital broadcasts, which are more efficient than analog, has been planned since the 1990s.
Opponents of a delay also worry about the added costs for television stations that have been banking on the Feb. 17 date and wouldn’t want to keep broadcasting both analog and digital signals for another four months. But Rockefeller adjusted his bill to let broadcasters go entirely digital sooner than the June deadline if they choose — a provision that has helped win the backing of the National Association of Broadcasters.
The Obama administration began pushing for a delay this month after the Commerce Department hit a $1.34 billion funding limit for coupons that help consumers pay for digital TV converter boxes.
The coupon program allows consumers to request up to two $40 vouchers per household to help pay for converter boxes. The boxes, which generally cost between $50 and $70 each and can be purchased without a coupon, translate digital signals back into analog ones for older TVs to handle.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the arm of the Commerce Department administering the program, is now sending out new coupons only as older, unredeemed ones expire and free up more money. The NTIA had nearly 2.6 million coupon requests on a waiting list as of last week.