WASHINGTON — With the clock ticking toward the Feb. 17 deadline for TV broadcasters to shut off their analog signals and go entirely digital, analysts say more than 6.5 million households are not ready. Now Congress appears poised to postpone the transition to June — but a delay could bring its own problems.
To avoid blacking out TV sets in unprepared homes next month, the Obama administration is seeking the delay to give the government more time to fix a subsidy program that has run out of money for coupons that help consumers pay for digital converter boxes for older TVs.
Senate Democrats late Thursday reached a deal with skeptical Republicans on a bill to push the digital transition to June 12 — setting the stage for a vote early next week. The House is likely to move quickly after the Senate acts.
But one big problem with extending the transition, critics warn, is that many TV viewers could be confused. A delay could also be expensive for broadcasters. And it could burden public safety agencies and wireless companies waiting for the airwaves that will be freed by the shutdown of analog signals.
Consumer awareness now high
Government agencies, consumer groups, television broadcasters and other parts of the industry have invested more than $1 billion over the past several years to educate consumers about the shift to digital broadcasting. The message all along has been that analog signals would be shut off on Feb. 17.
This aggressive campaign has pushed consumer awareness rates well above 90 percent, according to Megan Pollock, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association.
"We have been working for almost three years to educate consumers that this is the day," Pollock said. "How do we re-create that? It will be hard to start over."
It will also be costly — forcing the government and industry to pour more resources into additional public service announcements and outreach efforts.
For many television stations, a delay would also mean the additional expense of continuing to broadcast both an analog and a digital signal for another four months.
According to Randy Smith, president of WSET, the ABC affiliate in Lynchburg, Va., the electricity bill alone to operate some transmitters can run $20,000 a month.
A delay would also upend carefully mapped transition plans that many stations have had in place for months, if not longer.
WSET, for instance, is broadcasting an analog signal on Channel 13 and a digital signal on Channel 34, and plans to move its digital signal to Channel 13 after the switchover. Yet it cannot begin construction on a new digital station until it shuts down the analog one. So for more than a year, WSET has had tower crews and other workers scheduled to begin on Feb. 18.
To address such scenarios, the Senate bill would let TV stations proceed with the analog shutdown early — an option that WSET is considering.
But across the country, in Bend, Ore., Chris Gallu doesn't have that choice. Gallu is general manager of four TV stations in the Central Oregon town, including KTVZ, the NBC affiliate, and KFXO, the Fox affiliate.
To complete the move to digital, his stations are waiting for a larger, more powerful transmitter to arrive from a broadcaster in El Paso, Texas. But that transmitter won't become available until the El Paso station no longer needs it — and that won't happen until the Texas station switches channel assignments at the government deadline.
Emergency responders affected
TV stations are not the only ones concerned about a delay. The whole reason Congress is requiring broadcasters to go to digital signals is to free up valuable chunks of wireless spectrum for emergency-response networks and commercial wireless services. Both public safety agencies and the wireless industry are anxious for those airwaves to become available.
Emergency responders need the spectrum for "interoperable" communications networks that will allow police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers to talk with each other and with counterparts in nearby communities. Typically such agencies have had their own radio systems and couldn't always communicate with each other.
In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., for instance, Prince George's County, Md., has spent $76 million over the past three years on a new radio system for the police and fire departments, paramedics and municipal public safety agencies. The county plans to begin six months of testing the system — on frequencies being freed up by the analog shutdown — on Feb. 18.
Wayne McBride, deputy director the county's Office of Homeland Security and Public Safety Communications, said a delay would push back that entire process, which needs to be completed by Oct. 1. After that, leaves fall off the trees, which could throw off the tests of the system's effectiveness — since leaves can interfere with radio signals.
The Senate bill would allow public safety agencies to take over vacated spectrum as it becomes available, but it would not guarantee access to all the promised airwaves until June.
Wireless industry issues
The wireless industry, too, is concerned about the costs of postponing the digital transition. AT&T and Verizon Communications — which won licenses to much of the spectrum being freed up — have both said they would support a one-time, limited delay.
But Qualcomm 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.
Qualcomm is already offering the service in 65 markets around the country, where it has been paying broadcasters to drop their analog signals early. And it paid more than $550 million for spectrum being vacated by the digital transition to be able to expand the service in 25 markets, including Boston, Houston, Miami and San Francisco, beginning on Feb. 18.
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.
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