Congress Passes Digital Television Delay

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The U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation that would delay the United States’ transition to digital television by four months, shifting the transition date from February 17, 2009 to June 12, 2009. The bill is now going to President Obama to be signed into law; the President has said he supports the delay due to concerns an estimates 20 million Americans (mainly poor, elderly, and rural homes) were not ready for the transition.

Critics of delaying the transition have claimed that backing off the February 17, 2009 deadline would create consumer confusion…and here’s where some of that confusion might begin. Just because the transition date has been pushed back to June doesn’t mean that individual stations will keep their analog broadcasts running until then. Under the legislation, full-power broadcast stations can shut down their analog broadcasts and go all-digital before June 12 simply by notifying the FCC—and it appears many broadcast stations in major markets appear to do just that. There are roughly 1,800 major television broadcast stations in the United States. Although many may choose to keep their analog broadcasts running for competitive reasons—particularly during March "sweeps," a period which largely determines advertising rates for networks and stations—many have already put down substantial money to shut down analog broadcasts on February 17, and delaying the transition may be financially or logistically difficult at late date.

Congress has also approved additional funding for its digital converter box program, which offers $40 vouchers to U.S. residents to offset the cost of buying a convert to use old-style analog sets with digital broadcasts. Industry estimates indicate roughly 13 million vouchers were issues but never redeemed.

The digital TV delay also means extending 700 MHz spectrum licenses bought by the likes of AT&T and Verizon, which the companies intend to use to roll out so-called 4G mobile broadband services. Both companies have agreed to a one-time delay and license term extension.