DTV Delay Hits Bump in Road

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The final date for the transition to digital TV in the U.S. could still be pushed back even after a bill to delay the move failed to get enough votes in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate, would have pushed back the transition from Feb. 17 to June 13.

The House opted to rush the vote, suspending certain procedures, which meant the bill was required to win two-thirds approval rather than a simple majority. It failed to do that, but the House now has the option of bringing the bill to vote again next week, allowing time for a full debate. If it does this, the bill will need only a majority of votes to pass. It had a clear majority on Wednesday, when 258 members voted for the delay and 168 against.

It's unclear if the House will try again next week, however, especially given other weighty issues members of Congress are considering. "They are dealing with an economic crisis," noted Joel Kelsey, a spokesman with the Consumers Union, a group advocating for the delay.

President Obama and some consumer groups have been pushing for the four-month delay, in part because a program that distributed coupons to offset the cost of converter boxes ran out of money. The boxes are required for people who have analog televisions and receive TV over the air. Most people who receive TV over the air are elderly, live in rural communities or are part of low-income families.

The National Telecommunications Industry Administration, which is administering the coupon program, has sent out 20.7 million coupons but has 1.5 million people on a waiting list since the money ran out.

"Unless you can place a coupon in the hands of all those folks and ensure there are enough boxes on shelves to meet demand in the next two-and-a-half weeks, we're looking at what becomes an unfunded mandate by the federal government," Kelsey said.

Some mobile operators lobbied against the bill, arguing that a delay would push back the availability of new mobile services. That's because they spent billions in a government auction for the right to use the spectrum currently employed by analog broadcasters, and they are working on building out new networks using the spectrum.

In a statement, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman blamed Republicans for blocking the bill and said their vote would cause needless confusion for consumers. "I am working with the Obama administration and congressional leadership to explore all available options," he said.

The Consumer Electronics Association, which has argued against the delay, appears to believe the House will try again. "Congress will no doubt further deliberate the wisdom of extending the DTV transition date, and we urge full consideration of the implications for consumers of such delay," wrote Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the CEA, in a statement. "A delay is costly, affects broadcasters and affects emergency responders."

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