March 26, 2009 / 4:14 PM / 9 years ago

U.S. digital TV switch may still need fine-tuning

<p>A discarded television is seen along a street in Miami, Florida February 23, 2009. REUTERS/Carlos Barria</p>

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite a nearly four-month delay in a mandatory nationwide switch to digital television signals, there is still a chance that demand for the converter boxes needed for the transition will exceed supply, a top regulator said on Thursday.

“I do share (the) concern about whether inventory levels will be sufficient,” Anna Gomez, the acting assistant secretary for communications at the Commerce Department unit handling the switch, told a U.S. House panel.

The federally mandated transition was originally set for February 17, but lawmakers postponed it to June 12.

About a third of the nation’s 1,800 full-power broadcasters did switch from analog to digital TV signals on the original February 17 date.

President Barack Obama and most congressional Democrats pushed for and won a delay until June 12, as a government coupon program partly subsidizing the cost of converter boxes needed for the 15 percent of older television sets not connected to cable or satellite systems had run out of money.

That put millions of households on a coupon waiting list.

After $650 million in increased funding from Obama, that waiting list is now cleared.

But based on the numbers of coupons circulating and the percentage of those who have been redeeming them, there could be a shortage of converter boxes, said Rep. Rick Boucher, the Virginia Democrat who heads the subcommittee on communications of the House Energy and Commerce panel.

Republicans said because there were not major problems on February 17, the delay to June for full implementation was unnecessary.

“The sky did not fall,” Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Republican from Florida said. “I‘m sure we can find something better to spend our money on these days.”

Cable and satellite TV systems, which now serve the bulk of U.S. TV owners, have handled signal conversion for their subscribers, so those subscribers with older TV sets were able to receive the upgraded broadcasts.

TECHNICAL ISSUES

“We are nowhere near out of the woods,” said Michael Copps, acting chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. “This is a story whose main chapters have yet to be written.”

The coupon program was instituted under the prior administration of Republican President George W. Bush. A congressional report had warned of a last-minute rush for coupons last year.

Technical problems yet to be completely solved include circumstances in which viewers need an antenna, sometimes on a rooftop, in addition to a converter box, Copps said.

The switch from analog to digital allows broadcasters to send more data efficiently, and also frees up the existing analog spectrum for such uses as cell phones and public-safety radio transmissions.

Editing by Gerald E. McCormick

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