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US Congress kills digital TV delay

February 17. Ready or not

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The US House of Representatives today voted down a bill that would have delayed the States' changeover from analog to digital television broadcasting, a move that could shut down the boob tube for an estimated 6.5 million Americans in three weeks.

If the vote stands, the switchover will take place on February 17 as originally planned when Congress mandated the changeover in 2005 and not on June 12 as hoped for by the bill's supporters - which include the brand-spanking-new Obama administration.

Although "yes" votes outnumbered "no" votes by 258 to 168, the vote was held under a set of procedural rules that required a two-thirds majority to pass. Despite the current cuddly non-partisan nicey-nice in Washington, the vote was largely on party lines: 155 Republicans voted against (22 for) and 236 Democrats 236 voted for (13 against). Yesterday, a similar bill was passed unanimously by the US Senate.

The House leadership could reinstate the bill for a normal floor vote that would require only a simple majority for passage, but it remains to be seen whether they will take that course of action.

The bill's supporters cite multiple reasons for the proposed delay. For one, the US Commerce Department's $1.34 billion fund for coupons to help consumers pay for digital TV converter boxes has run dry - and as of last week there were nearly 2.6 million coupon requests on the Department's waiting list.

Apparently, members of the erstwhile Bush administration miscalculated a smidgen.

Supporters also point to statements by the Consumers Union and others that it will be the poor, the under-educated, the elderly, and non-English speakers who are most likely to be left in the dark come February 17. It's been estimated that in Chicago, for example, a full 20 per cent of households still capture their TV signals using antennas rather than cable boxes.

The National Association of Broadcasters, for its part, announced in December that it will set up a phone bank to address consumer concerns - and they must expect a lot of them, as they're preparing for one million phone calls on February 18 alone. Need a temp job? One assumes that NAB will be hiring in a couple of weeks.

Opponents of the bill have their reasons as well. Television stations, they contend, have already planned for and budgeted for the switch and delaying it for four months would be an unacceptable and burdensome changing of horses in midstream.

Even more important from a commerce point of view is the fact that large chunks of the 700MHz analog band that will be freed up by the digital switchover have already been auctioned off to wireless providers. They've already invested billions in preparation for using it, and a four-month delay would hit them right where they're hurting most these days: their bottom lines.

But missing from most of these discussions is the simple question of whether - or, more generously, how well - digital TV will work. And in some locations, whether it will work at all. Testing in the US has been minimal at best, and anecdotal reports of limited reception, audio-sync problems, and signal dropout are rampant.

What's more, even TV watchers who believe that they're well prepared for the coming digital wonderland won't know until after the switch whether their favorite stations will be operating in the UHF, High VHF, or low VHF bands after the switchover.

As Jason Knott told his electronics-installer readers on CE Pro, a website for the custom electronics industry, "On February 17, 2009 you’d better be 'all hands on deck' for simply going out and tweaking antennas, if you’ve installed a lot of HD antennas. Wipe the calendar clean of new installations that week."

Expect many angry American Idol addicts on February 18th. ®

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