Technology & Science

U.S. Senate votes for 4-month delay of digital TV switch

The United States Senate voted unanimously Monday to delay the deadline for the country's transition to digital television by four months, despite initial resistance from Republicans and objections from the wireless industry.

The United States Senate voted unanimously Monday to delay the deadline for the country's transition to digital television by four months, despite initial resistance from Republicans and objections from the wireless industry.

Earl Mostoles, right, helps Arlene Sato set up her digital receiver for her old analog television in Honolulu, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009. ((Ronen Zilberman/Associated Press))

The delay moves the latest date for the switch from analog television broadcasting to digital transmission to June 12 from Feb. 17.

U.S. President Barack Obama began pressing for a delay earlier this month after the federal program that provides coupons to defray the cost of converter boxes hit a $1.34-billion US funding limit this month.

Consumer advocates and Senate Democrats have said a delay is needed in order to accommodate many of the poor, elderly or rural households who are not ready for the switch.

The Nielsen Co. estimates that more than 6.5 million U.S. households without converter boxes that rely on analog television sets to pick up over-the-air broadcast signals could see their TV sets go dark next month if the transition is not postponed.

Jonathan Collegio, vice-president for the digital television transition for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), told the Associated Press that the Nielsen numbers may overstate the number of viewers who are not ready for the digital transition.

He noted that the numbers exclude consumers who have already purchased a converter box but not yet installed it, as well as those who have requested coupons but not yet received them.

Verizon flip-flops on switch, Qualcomm still opposed

Proponents of digital transmission say it provides better quality picture and sound and allows two-way communication, which enables interactive features like video-on-demand. The switch to digital also frees up analog airwaves, some of which will be used for emergency broadcast purposes, although the bulk were auctioned off to wireless companies for around $20 billion US.

CTIA, a wireless industry association group, has said a delay would undermine confidence in the auctions of the wireless spectrum and postpone deployment of broadband services.

Mobile phone companies Verizon and AT&T, who have bought the lion's share of the auctioned airwaves, have shown willingness to work with a delay. Verizon was initially vocal in its opposition to any delay; the company hopes to use its purchased airwaves to roll out next-generation wireless technology by 2010. Dubbed long-term evolution (LTE), its boosters say the new technology allows for greater efficiency and provides more flexibility and capacity on the broadband network.

But last week, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg said he would support the bill, provided no further delays were forthcoming. AT&T has also said it may be willing to work with the Obama administration to accommodate a delay. AT&T is not expected to begin an LTE rollout until 2012.

As part of the Senate-approved bill, both companies would see their licences extended by 116 days to accommodate the delay.

Qualcomm, however, is lobbying against a delay. The company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a new wireless service, called MediaFLO, that lets consumers watch live television on their wireless phones.

According to Qualcomm chief operating office Len Lauer, a delay would cost the company tens of millions of dollars — in additional payments to broadcasters to vacate their analog spectrum for another four months and in lost revenue from new markets.

Meanwhile, the Public Broadcasting Service reported the four-month delay could cost public broadcasters as much as $22 million US.

Flexibility for broadcasters under Senate bill

But the NAB came out in support of the bill Tuesday, saying it provided flexibility to stations to adjust to the new deadline.

The author of the bill, Democratic Senate commerce committee chairman Jay Rockefeller, has said broadcast stations can make the switch from analog to digital signals sooner than the June deadline if they choose — pending approval from the Federal Communications Commission. The bill also permits public safety agencies to take over vacant spectrum promised to them as soon as it becomes available.

Rockefeller struck an agreement with Republicans where he resolved not to seek any more delays in exchange for their support, the Los Angeles Times quoted Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison as saying.

The Senate's bill now goes to the House, where despite expected opposition from Republicans, the bill is likely to pass, perhaps as early as Tuesday.

Senate and House Republicans have previously criticized the delay, saying it would confuse consumers, burden wireless companies and would create added costs for broadcasters. Republican Senators voted down an attempt earlier this month to push a delay through.

CRTC chair concerned about Canadian switch

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has said that Canada's switch to digital from analog will take effect by Aug. 31, 2011.

CRTC chair Konrad Von Finkenstein has said he is concerned that Canada's broadcasting industry has not shown the urgency that is needed when it comes to the transition.

"My great concern is that the industry will not be ready," Von Finkenstein said in June, speaking at the Broadcasting Invitational Summit. "There will be requests for delays, and we will have a crisis on our hands. This must not be allowed to happen."

An estimated 10 per cent of Canadians still rely on over-the-air signals to watch television.

The government has not said whether it will be rolling out a subsidized converter box program similar to that in the United States but has said the transition to digital must remain on track. There are no set plans for an auction of the soon-to-be vacated Canadian airwaves, but one is expected.

With files from the Associated Press