In Depth

Senate Agrees to Delay Digital Transition; Vote Expected Next Week

A bipartisan agreement to delay the country’s digital TV changeover from Feb. 17 to June 12 was announced Thursday night by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

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Sen. Rockefeller said a Senate vote on the legislation likely would take place next week.

Sen. Rockefeller had earlier proposed a similar delay, only to see an attempt by the Senate to short-circuit normal procedures and quickly pass the legislation run into GOP objections.

The new version allows TV stations to switch from an analog to a digital signal early without penalty and allows the government to issue more discount coupons for converter boxes that deliver digital signals to analog sets.

It has the support of the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

The legislation also gives the Federal Communications Commission some additional authority to auction off new spectrum to help pay for the delay.

In a statement inserted into the Congressional Record Thursday night, Sen. Rockefeller said delaying the changeover was the only reasonable choice Congress had because of the failure of the Bush administration to adequately prepare for the transition.

"The way I see it, right now we have a choice. We can do the DTV transition right or we can do it wrong. Doing it right would mean that as many as 21 million households across this country do not lose access to news, information and emergency alerts," he said.

"Doing it right would mean that every consumer who relies on over the-air television is aware of the steps they need to take to ensure continued reception and receive the assistance they need to prepare for the transition in their home. And doing it right means that no one across this land wakes up on Feb. 18 to find that their television set has gone dark,” he added.

He said the “shameful truth” is the government is not poised right now to do the changeover “right.”

"We are only weeks away from doing it dreadfully wrong—and leaving consumers with the consequences," he said. "It is no secret that the outgoing administration grossly mismanaged the digital television transition."

A delay in the changeover was urged by Consumers Union and then by the Obama transition team. They pointed to a government coupon program for DTV converter boxes that ran out of money and concerns that resources weren’t in place to help confused consumers.

Republicans had opposed the delay, instead urging the coupon problems simply be fixed.

If the switch wins Senate and House approval, the FCC and broadcasters face the formidable task of re-educating consumers. Millions of dollars worth of public service ads have been airing telling consumers the switchover would happen at midnight Feb. 17.