WASHINGTON — People who aren't ready for next month's nationwide switch to all-digital broadcast TV are likely to get a four-month extension after the Senate voted Monday to delay the conversion until June.
The move follows President Obama's call for a postponement after a $1.5-billion government program to help viewers buy special converter boxes temporarily ran out of money this month. Obama's proposed $825-billion stimulus legislation includes $650 million to help replenish the program.
The delay, approved unanimously on a voice vote by the Senate, would give millions of viewers more time to prepare for the transition. Only those who use outdoor or rabbit-ear antennas need converter boxes. Pay-television providers already handle the conversion for their customers.
"I firmly believe that our nation is not yet ready to make this transition at this time," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), who pressed for the delay.
Under his bill, the date that all broadcast TV stations would be required to turn off their analog signals and broadcast only in digital would change from Feb. 17 to June 12. As part of a compromise to overcome Republican opposition in the Senate, Rockefeller promised not to seek any more delays, said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who helped craft the deal.
The House, which is expected to pass the bill despite some strong Republican objections, could vote today, said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Congress authorized the switch to more efficient digital signals in 2005 to free up airwaves for public safety communications and new wireless services. Digital TV offers viewers clearer pictures and more free channels -- many in high-definition -- because stations can air several channels on the same slice of the airwaves.
But viewers need a digital receiver to pick up the signals.
Cable, satellite and phone company TV customers are largely unaffected because their providers convert the digital signal for them on analog sets. But people who rely on antennas need either a newer television with a digital tuner or a converter box to watch the signals on older TVs.
Because it was forcing the change on viewers, Congress set aside $1.5 billion for up to two $40 coupons per household to buy no-frills converter boxes, which cost $40 to $70.
The program was not limited to over-the-air households, allowing people with pay-TV services to receive coupons for spare television sets. The program gave viewers 90 days to buy converters before the coupons expired.
Demand for the program outstripped supply, and on Jan. 5 the National Telecommunications and Information Administration said it had run out of money and could not send out any more coupons until some existing ones expired.
As of Wednesday, 46.5 million coupons had been mailed and 20.8 million redeemed since the program started on Jan. 1, 2008, according to the agency. A waiting list had 2.6 million people.
The Obama transition team was alarmed, mainly because many people who rely on antennas are poor, minorities or elderly. The Nielsen Co. estimated that more than 6.5 million households -- or 5.7% of TV homes -- were not prepared to receive digital signals.
In the Los Angeles market, about 7.7%, or 433,000 homes, were not ready for the switch.
The Senate bill allows stations to make the switch before June if they get approval from the Federal Communications Commission. Public safety organizations in those markets would get immediate access to the old TV airwaves.