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Senate grants Obama's wish to delay the digital transition, House votes on bill soon

TV viewers have been inundated with service announcements and coverage of the digital transition from analog to all digital TV broadcasts that is set to happen next month. Viewers who were using older TVs and don't get a converter or subscribe to pay-TV will lose the ability to watch free broadcast stations after the transition.

One of the first things that president Obama asked was to delay the digital transition to give Americans who weren't prepared more time to get ready. The government has been running a coupon program that gives people who need a converter box coupon to help pay for the cost of getting the needed converter.

The Senate drafted a bill last week that outlined a method for delaying the digital transition from February 17 to June 12 of 2009 to give viewers an extra four months to get a converter or subscribe to pat TV services.

MSNBC reports that the Senate has unanimously approved the bill to delay the transition to the June 12 date that the Obama administration wants. The delay is seen as a victory for the Obama administration and for Democrats in Congress who have been lobbying for a delay in the transition date.

The Nielsen Company performed a survey that found 6.5 million homes in America were unprepared for the digital transition and would lose the ability to watch TV after the transition. Funds in government coffers to help offset the cost of the converters for Americans dried up this month despite a long backlist of requests for the coupons.

Additional funds for the program are only being added as coupons that were requested and then not used expire after the 90-day usage window originally granted. The bill that was approved by the Senate will let those who asked for coupons and then didn’t use them apply for a new coupon. MSNBC reports that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is administering the coupon program, had 2.6 million coupon requests on its waiting list as of last week.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller said, "Delaying the upcoming DTV switch is the right thing to do. I firmly believe that our nation is not yet ready to make this transition at this time."

VP of the digital TV transition for the National Association of Broadcasters Jonathan Collegio says that the numbers cited by Nielsen may overstate the number of people not ready for the digital transition. Collegio says that the numbers exclude consumers who have purchased a converter box, but not installed it as well as those who have requested a coupon and not received it.

Gene Kimmelman from the Consumers Union says, "The government has failed to deliver the converter boxes these [elderly and low-income] people deserve just to keep watching free, over-the-air broadcast signals."

Republicans in both the House and Senate are concerned that a delay in the transition will do nothing but confuse consumers and cost broadcasters money. Paula Kerger from the Public Broadcasting Service claims that delaying the digital transition from February to June 12 could cost public broadcasters $22 million.

Part of the wording in the Senate approved bill will let broadcasters who have already purchased the needed equipment for digital broadcasts to transition to all digital in February, even if the House votes to approve the delay in the transition. The House is expected to vote on the bill next week.





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