WASHINGTON – The House voted Wednesday to delay the nation’s transition to digital television by four months, less than two weeks before broadcasters were scheduled to turn off traditional analog signals and air only digital programming Feb. 17.
The vote is a victory for the Obama administration and Democratic lawmakers who pushed to give consumers more time and resources to get ready for the switch. Some Republicans argued a delay would cause further confusion and cost broadcasters millions.
President Obama has said he will sign the bill delaying the switch once it lands on his desk.
Broadcasters now have until June 12 to turn off their analog signals, although they can do so anytime after Feb. 17 if they choose to. Spokane broadcasters are reviewing the bill to see what their options are. They have said they would prefer to make the switch Feb. 17 if the law gives them a choice.
Many broadcasters already air a digital signal as well as an analog signal. Once analog signals cut off, consumers with older analog TV sets that receive over-the-air broadcasts with an antenna will need to buy a digital TV set or install a converter box to keep getting signals.
By law, broadcasters must shut off analog signals in order to free up more airwaves for public safety communications networks and new wireless services for consumers, such as wireless broadband service. The bill passed by Congress will allow public safety agencies to use the TV frequencies as they are vacated by stations.
The push to delay the transition began when the Commerce Department program to distribute coupons for converter boxes ran out of money. Since then, more than 3.3 million consumers have been placed on a waiting list for the $40 coupons. New coupons cannot be mailed out until already-issued ones reach their 90-day expiration date.
A top aid to Obama sent a letter asking members of Congress to consider delaying the transition so money from the stimulus package could be allocated to the transition process, including the coupon program. The call for a delay was echoed by consumer groups and some broadcast networks. AT&T and Verizon Wireless, which spent billions last year to purchase the soon-to-be-freed airwaves, said the one-time delay of the transition would not hurt their plans to use the spectrum for their own advanced wireless products.
The bill to postpone the digital switch was first passed in the Senate last week. Two days later, House Republicans blocked the bill from getting the two-thirds majority needed to pass under the rules applied to the legislation, even though the majority of lawmakers voted in favor of the delay.
But on Thursday the Senate passed the same bill that had failed in the House, which gave the House another vote, this time needing only a simple majority to pass.
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