Digital TV switch up in the air

The move to delay next month’s nationwide transition to all-digital broadcast television stalled Wednesday in the House, but supporters expected the measure to pass as soon as next week.

A fast-tracked bill to delay the switch until June 12 failed to get the two-thirds majority required for an expedited vote after it passed the Senate on a unanimous voice vote Monday.

Despite strong Republican opposition, the House voted 258 to 168 in favor of a delay -- plenty of support to pass under normal rules that require only a simple majority.

“The likelihood is we’ll come back next week” and pass it, said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee. But Democratic and Republican policy retreats could complicate the attempts to get another vote next week.


A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said she was looking for a way to hold another vote soon.

President Obama requested a delay in the changeover because of concerns that millions of Americans who use antennas would lose over-the-air signals when the government-mandated switch from analog to digital broadcasts takes place Feb. 17. Those viewers’ sets could go dark because a government program to help pay for converter boxes for analog TV sets temporarily ran out of money Jan. 5.

Cable, satellite and phone company TV customers are largely unaffected because those systems convert the digital signal so it can be viewed on analog sets. But people who rely on rabbit ears or rooftop antennas to watch TV must have either a newer digital set or a converter box.

As part of the government-mandated transition, Congress allocated $1.5 billion for up to two $40 coupons per household to buy no-frills converter boxes. Those boxes cost $40 to $70. But as the Feb. 17 date approached, demand overwhelmed the program, run by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

As of Jan. 21, the agency had a waiting list of 2.6 million people and was processing requests as existing coupons -- good for only 90 days -- expired. The Nielsen Co. estimated last week that more than 6.5 million households were not prepared to receive digital signals, about 433,000 in the Los Angeles area.

“They will lose all television service if the transition occurs on Feb. 17,” Boucher said. “We simply cannot allow that dislocation to occur.”

But Republicans said a delay wasn’t needed and worried about the consequences for police and fire departments and other public safety agencies, which will get a portion of the television analog airwaves to improve their communications. Still, several public safety organizations did not oppose the four-month delay.

“I guarantee you, no matter when you set the date -- Feb. 17, June 12, July the Fourth, Valentine’s Day -- there are going to be some people that aren’t ready,” said Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas), who led the opposition. Of the 178 House Republicans, 155 voted against the delay Wednesday. They were joined by 13 Democrats.


The opposition was enough to kill the bill under the expedited procedure, which required 284 votes to pass. Overall, 236 Democrats and 22 Republicans voted for the delay.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), who pushed for the delay, chastised Republicans, saying their opposition wasted time and confused consumers.

“A clear majority in Congress supports postponing the transition and providing assistance to the millions of households that are unprepared,” he said. The House economic stimulus legislation includes $650 million to help replenish the converter box coupon program.