The Senate appeared close to agreement late Thursday on a bill to delay next month's planned transition from analog to digital television broadcasting to June 12 — setting the stage for a vote early next week.
Senate Republicans last week blocked Democratic efforts to push back the Feb. 17 deadline for the analog shutoff. The Democrats cited mounting concerns that too many Americans who rely on analog TV sets to pick up over-the-air broadcast signals won't be ready.
The Nielsen Co. said Thursday that more than 6.5 million U.S. households are still not prepared for the upcoming transition and could see their TV sets go dark next month.
"The shameful truth is that we are not poised to do this transition right," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller, D-W.V., author of the bill to delay the switchover. "We are only weeks away from doing it dreadfully wrong — and leaving consumers with the consequences."
Republicans in both the House and Senate have raised concerns that a delay would confuse consumers, create added costs for television stations that would have to continue broadcasting both analog and digital signals and burden wireless companies and public safety agencies waiting for spectrum that will be freed up by the switch.
But Rockefeller said late Thursday that he had reached a bipartisan compromise and won the crucial support of the committee's top Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.
Rockefeller's bill aims to address Republican concerns by allowing broadcast stations to make the switch from analog to digital signals sooner than the June 12 deadline if they choose to — a provision consistent with the current law mandating a Feb. 17 transition. It would also permit public safety agencies to take over vacant spectrum that has been promised to them as soon as it becomes available.
In 2005, Congress required broadcasters to switch from analog to digital signals, which are more efficient, to free up valuable chunks of wireless spectrum to be used for commercial wireless services and interoperable emergency-response networks.
But President Barack Obama earlier this month called for the transition date to be postponed after the Commerce Department hit a $1.34 billion funding limit for coupons to subsidize digital TV converter boxes for consumers. The boxes, which generally cost between $40 and $80 each and can be purchased without a coupon, translate digital signals back into analog ones for older TVs.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the arm of the Commerce Department administering the program, is now sending out new coupons only as older, unredeemed ones reach a 90-day expiration date and free up more money for the program. The NTIA had nearly 2.6 million coupon requests on a waiting list as of Wednesday.
If Rockefeller's bill passes the Senate next week, the matter goes next to the House. With the clock ticking down on Feb. 17, the quickest course of action for Congress would be for the House to simply pass the Senate bill.
House Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., postponed a committee vote on his own proposal to delay the digital transition earlier this week, saying he wanted to wait and see how the debate plays out in the Senate.