Senate Votes to Delay DTV Transition

"It would take an act of Congress" to postpone the digital TV transition, said a board member of the DTV Transition coalition earlier this month--before Congress began considering President Obama's request for a delay. And now, that's exactly how this saga is playing out.

The U.S. Senate voted Monday to delay the switchover from analog to digital television broadcasting. The original date was set for February 17, 2009, just 22 days from now; under the bill passed in the Senate, that deadline would postponed until June 12. The House still needs to vote, but it is expected to pass similar legislation extending the transition.

The reprieve for analog is a response to concerns that an estimated 6.5 million U.S. households continue to rely on antennas and will go dark when the switchover to digital occurs. A year ago, the Consumer Electronics Association estimated that 13.5 million households would require a converter box.

At the heart of the transition's delay are Issues with the deployment of funds from the U.S. Commerce Department's coupon program, which offers households up to two $40 coupons to defray the cost of a digital TV converter box. The coupon program launched over a year ago; and 19 million coupons have been redeemed--a redemption rate of around 50 percent.

By the end of 2008, though, the funds allocated for the coupon program had dried up: Consumers who tried to request a coupon were put on a waiting list.

"There was a set amount of money -- $1.3 billion -- for coupons," explains John Taylor, the aforementioned board member of the DTV Transition coalition, and vice president of communications at LG Electronics. But the coupons are good for a limited time only. "As the coupons expire, the money goes back into the treasury." The money then has to be reallocated to back new coupons--a process that has taken longer than expected.

Before the Senate vote for a delay was announced, Taylor expected another 10 million coupons to be redeemed before the February transition deadline.

Taylor notes that having a hard date for the transition is important. "It gives certainty" to the process he says, both for consumers and for consumer electronics companies. According to the coalition's most recent survey data, he notes, 97 percent of households know about DTV today and know that the transition was scheduled to happen in February.

If you do have a DTV converter box today, you'll have to take action on the presumed new transition day: You'll have to rescan the channels on your converter box. "When 600 stations move to a different frequency that night [of the transition], that affects everyone with a digital TV and an ATSC tuner," says Taylor.

Refer to PC World's FAQ about the Digital TV transition to learn more about how the impending changeover will affect you.

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