WASHINGTON – The transition next month to digital television has been hailed as the biggest advance in over-the-air TV since the advent of color, but it’s shaping up to be another black eye for the government that could leave millions of viewers without a picture next month.
On Thursday, President-elect Barack Obama asked Congress to postpone the Feb. 17 switch to all-digital broadcast television, called DTV.
The unspecified delay would give the government time to fix a consumer-help program that surprisingly ran out of money this week. It also would set back the long-promised benefits of digital TV, which offers a sharper picture and more free channels while opening up valuable airwaves for public safety and wireless Internet access.
The government took in $19.6 billion last year by auctioning existing analog TV airwaves to telecommunications companies for new wireless services, but Congress allocated less than $2 billion to educate consumers about the transition and issue coupons to buy needed converter boxes.
Now an estimated 7.7 million households nationwide could see their screens go dark next month.
A delay is far from certain, given potential opposition from broadcasters, public safety agencies and telecommunications companies eager to start using those expensive new airwaves, but there was plenty of frustration being expressed Thursday with the way the digital TV transition has been run.
Congress decided in 2005 to require all TV stations to broadcast only in digital in order to free up airwaves for public-safety use in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and for auction to telecommunications companies to ease the federal budget deficit.
People with cable, satellite or phone-company TV services will continue to receive broadcast stations. But those who rely on antennas must have either a newer TV with a digital receiver or get a converter box. No-frills versions of those boxes cost between $40 and $70. To offset the expense, the federal government allocated $1.5 billion to provide households with a maximum of two $40 coupons each.
On Monday, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced that the program had used up all the funds allocated. The government agency has a waiting list of about 1.1 million coupon requests.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.