For the second time in a week, the Senate voted unanimously in favor of a bill to delay the transition from analog to all-digital television (DTV) broadcasts until June 12. The bill, approved late Thursday, now heads to the House, where it is expected to pass next week.
House Republicans shot down a similar DTV delay bill earlier this week. But the chamber had been operating under special rules, which meant that the measure needed a two-thirds majority to clear. In a standard floor vote, likely to come next Wednesday, the bill should pass easily, according to David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, an industry group representing more than 400 local TV stations.
“Bottom line is I think that the bill passes and you do get a delay until June 12,” Donovan said on a conference call this morning hosted by analysts at JP Morgan.
The news comes as the latest success for supporters of the DTV delay, who include President Obama. Advocates for a delay warn that millions of Americans are unprepared for the transition, and will see their sets go dark if broadcasters stick to the original date of Feb. 17.
One of the major issues is a federally funded coupon program to defray the cost of the converter boxes that analog sets will need to receive over-the-air transmissions. The agency administering the coupon program ran out of money in January, and the waiting list for coupons has grown to around 3 million.
The Senate had passed an almost identical bill on Monday, but John Rockefeller, D-W.V., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, reintroduced the legislation with only minor tweaks after Wednesday’s House vote.
Critics of the government’s management of the transition also warn that the call centers set up to answer questions are understaffed and inadequately funded.
The economic stimulus bill the House passed last week would allocate $650 million to fund the coupon program. An alternate version of the legislation is slated to hit the Senate floor next week.
In addition to buying time to clear the coupon backlog, the DTV delay bill would allow people whose coupons had expired to reapply to the program.
It would also allow individual broadcasters to switch over to the all-digital format early. That was one of the provisions that Rockefeller and Hutchison, the leaders of the Commerce Committee, agreed to include in a compromise bill.
Donovan said that about 300 stations have already announced plans to shut off their analog broadcasts on the original date next month.
“From the broadcast perspective, we in fact are ready. We’ve been ready for some time now,” he said. “This really is sort of a political, consumer-side issue.”
In cases where broadcasters switched over early, the Senate bill would make the vacated spectrum available for public-safety communications. It would not, however, release any of the analog spectrum to the private sector, an aide to Hutchison told InternetNews.com.
Last March, the Federal Communications Commission sold the spectrum at an auction that raised nearly $20 billion. The big winners were Verizon Wireless and AT&T, which plan to use the spectrum to build and expand their networks for advanced data communications.