February 05, 2009, 5:03 PM — The U.S. House of Representatives' vote Wednesday to delay a national transition from analog to digital television until June may cause a shortage in digital converter boxes and will delay some new wireless services aimed at consumers, some critics said.
Many makers of digital converter boxes have stopped production in anticipation of the original Feb. 17 transition date, said Megan Pollock, spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). An extension until June 12, now approved by both the U.S. House and Senate, could drive demand for converters from customers who don't need them, and some manufacturers may need up to 24 weeks to fire back up their production lines, she said.
The House and Senate voted to delay the transition after reports that millions of U.S. homes aren't ready for the switch. Nielsen, the TV survey company, said in mid-January that 6.5 million homes, nearly 6 percent of homes in the U.S., didn't have the converter boxes necessary to receive digital broadcasts. Older TV sets that receive broadcasts over the air would need converter boxes to continue getting a TV signal; customers of cable and satellite TV service do not.
In addition, more than 3.7 million U.S. households are on a waiting list for coupons to help pay for the converter boxes. In early January, the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said its TV Converter Box Coupon Program, with a US$1.3 billion budget from Congress, was out of money.
The CEA also sees potential for public confusion over the new deadline, after the Feb. 17 deadline was well-publicized. Nevertheless, the trade group plans to launch a new consumer education program in "full support for a successful transition to digital television," CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro said in a statement.
Qualcomm, another opponent of the delay, said the date change will delay a planned expansion of its MediaFlo wireless video service in the U.S. Qualcomm, which paid $554.6 million for a block of spectrum being abandoned by U.S. TV stations, had planned to nearly double its U.S. coverage of MediaFlo from 65 to more than 100 markets shortly after the transition was completed.
"Due to the investments we made, we were ready for a Feb. 17 transition to provide our innovative Flo TV service nationwide immediately," Qualcomm said in a statement. "In light of the fact that the legislation, as amended and finally passed by Congress, allows TV stations to transition voluntarily between now and June 12, we cannot determine the specific impact of the final bill's passage on our MediaFlo business."
On Thursday, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission issued a public notice outlining procedures for TV stations that want to switch to digital broadcasts before June 12.
Michael Copps, acting chairman of the FCC, applauded the delay, however.
Copps said he applauded Congress' decision to delay the transition. "We remain far from ready, despite the heroic efforts of FCC staff, performing under great odds and inadequate leadership," he said. "As I've said before, this national transition has been mismanaged and plagued by the lack of a coherent and coordinated strategy. More time was desperately needed to correct the mistakes that many ... have long raised."
Copps called on Congress and the FCC to re-establish the converter-box coupon program and to establish field operations to give hands-on assistance to TV viewers who need it.