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Congress gives analogue TV signal 4-month reprieve

Many Americans slow to switch to digital

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The US Congress has agreed to delay the mandatory transition to digital television until 12 June, putting the sick, the elderly and the unemployed ahead of the first responders waiting for access to the released spectrum.

The vote was split 264 to 158, but this time only needed a simple majority and was thus passed with agreement to delay the plug-pulling, which was scheduled for 17 February, until 12 June on the grounds that many Americans have still not migrated to receiving a digital signal.

Only a week ago the same proposal failed to achieve the two-thirds majority required under procedural rules. But this time a simple majority was enough to pass the Obama-approved motion that was quickly endorsed by the new chair of the FCC Michael Copps.

"I welcome Congressional passage of the DTV Delay Act," said Copps. "It has long been clear to me - and it’s even clearer since I became acting FCC Chairman two weeks ago - that the country is not prepared to undertake a nationwide transition in 12 days without unacceptably high consumer dislocation."

In some areas that means first responders who were expecting to have access to the spectrum in the next couple of weeks will now have to wait another four months. A last-minute motion from the Republicans would have forced stations operating in such areas to stick to the 17 February date, but that was defeated.

Democrats argued that keeping TV running was more important for public safety than providing spectrum to a small number of emergency services, most of which were not ready to start using it anyway.

The US government has been handing out vouchers in an attempt to get punters switched to digital. But Broadcasting & Cable reports that 2m US households are still waiting for their $40 coupons. Democrats arguing for the delay reckon that number rose by 200,000 in the past two days.

But the delay is optional. Some stations will switch off their analogue services earlier, though it is not yet clear whether they will be required to give the usually-required 30 days notice if they want to stick with the 17 February date. The FCC reckons it has heard from 276 stations across the US who will be switching off analogue in two weeks, in addition to the 143 stations that have already pulled the plug. ®

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