Congress has decided to push back the nationwide switch from analog to digital television for four more months.
The House voted 264-158 on Wednesday to postpone the transition until June 12. The Senate passed the bill last week.
The delay was prompted by calls from public interest groups and some members of Congress who said that millions of U.S. households would not be ready for the transition by the Feb. 17 deadline. Rural, low-income, elderly and non-English speaking households are particularly at risk, according to the nation's leading consumer advocacy group, Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.
More than 6 million households still rely on analog TV sets, according to Nielsen Company estimates. Other studies say the number is higher — with one estimate as high as 15 million households.
And last month, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced it had run out of money for a program to distribute coupons to help defray the cost of digital-to-analog converter boxes. Consumers who do not have newer digital TVs — and do not subscribe to either a satellite or cable service — will need the converter boxes to continue receiving TV signals over the air after the digital switch.
There are more than 3 million people on a waiting list to receive the coupons, according to the NTIA. The bill passed Wednesday would allow consumers whose coupons have expired to apply for new ones. Another bill before Congress — the economic stimulus legislation — would provide $650 million to help get the coupon program moving again.
The House passed the delay bill even though a vote last week ran into some interference, with opponents saying a delay would further confuse consumers and financially strain stations that have already powered up their new digital transmitters and are waiting to shut down their old analog units. Under the measure, some broadcasters would be permitted to switch to digital before June 12 with approval from the Federal Communications Commission.
The bill now goes to President Obama, who has said he will sign it. The White House released a statement Wednesday that read, "The passage of this bipartisan legislation means that millions of Americans will have the time they need to prepare for the conversion."