(Adds details on broadcaster options, cable industry)
By Kim Dixon
WASHINGTON Feb 4 The U.S. switch to digital
television signals will be delayed four months until June under
legislation that cleared Congress on Wednesday and now goes to
President Barack Obama for his signature into law.
Obama supports the delay, sharing concerns that 20 million
mostly poor, elderly and rural households were not ready for
the congressionally mandated switch.
The bill delaying the changeover to June 12 from Feb. 17
cleared the U.S. House of Representatives in a 264-158 vote and
followed Senate passage last month.
About 13 million people hold expired $40 coupons the
government was providing to offset the costs of converter boxes
needed for older televisions, according to Consumers Union. The
government ran out of coupons last month and millions of
requests for coupons are pending.
"We believe it is irresponsible to ask mostly rural, or
elderly consumers to reach into their own pockets to deal with
this transition when many folks, including the federal
government, are making a profit," said Joel Kelsey, a policy
analyst at Consumers Union.
Airwaves to be vacated by television broadcasters after the
switch were purchased mostly by AT&T Inc (T.N) and Verizon
Communications Inc (VZ.N) in an auction that raised about $19
billion for the U.S. government.
Both companies agreed to a short one-time delay and their
licenses will be extended under the bill.
For the most part, only viewers with older sets that
receive broadcast analog signals and do not get cable or
satellite television, must act to prevent their screens from
going black after the switch.
Most Republicans opposed the delay, arguing it would create
more confusion after years and millions of dollars had been
spent by the government and private industry to advertise the
FCC Acting Commissioner Michael Copps said earlier this
week the agency had been working on a "plan B" in case the
Congress extended the deadline.
CABLE, BROADCAST IMPACT
The two largest cable companies, Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O) and
Time Warner Cable Inc TWC.N, have said they see an
opportunity to add new subscribers who in the past might not
have taken pay-TV services.
The nation's nearly 1,800 full-power television stations
can switch to digital early if they notify the FCC and the
public under the bill.
But most consumers do not have to worry about losing
channels, according to a broadcast industry source.
"For competitive reasons, I think most stations won't go
early," the source said, noting "sweeps week," which sets rates
for some advertisers, is in March.
One company actively opposing the delay was Qualcomm Inc
(QCOM.O), which paid about $550 million to use the vacated
spectrum to extend a roll-out of its mobile video service.
(Reporting by Kim Dixon; editing by Tim Dobbyn and Andre