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Obama asks Congress to delay digital TV switch*

January 8, 2009 | 11:44 am

Digital TV

President-elect Barack Obama today asked Congress to delay next month’s planned switch to all-digital broadcast television, warning that the TVs of millions of Americans could lose their pictures because of major problems in the government's preparations.

In a letter to Congressional leaders (PDF), John Podesta, co-chairman of Obama’s presidential transition team, urged that the Feb. 17 conversion date be extended. A major reason was the announcement this week by the Commerce Department that it had run out of money for a government program to provide $40 coupons for low-cost converter boxes to allow older TVs to receive the new digital signal. But Podesta also cited problems with the government’s effort to educate the public about the switch and help prepare people, particularly the elderly, poor and those living in rural areas.

"With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date,” Podesta wrote to the chairmen and top Republicans on the Senate Commerce committee and the House Energy and Commerce committee.

According to the Nielsen Co., about 6.8% of U.S. TV households, or 7.7 million homes, were unprepared for the digital switch as of last month, meaning they had no TVs capable of receiving a digital signal. The percentage is higher in Los Angeles, with 9.46%, or about 535,000 homes unprepared for the switch.

The digital TV transition is being hailed as broadcast television's most dramatic upgrade since it bloomed to color from black and white half a century ago. The technology gives free viewers vastly sharper pictures and enables TV networks to offer a wider range of channels. What's more, a wide swath of the analog airwaves will go for free to public safety organizations, such as police and fire departments, so they can improve their communications systems.

People with cable, satellite or phone company TV services will continue to get broadcast stations. But those who rely on antennas to watch TV must ...

... either own a newer set with a digital receiver or get a digital-to-analog converter box. No-frills versions of those boxes cost between $40 and $70.

To offset the cost, the federal government allocated $1.5 billion to provide households with up to two $40 coupons. But the agency running that program announced Monday that the program had reached its limit and that new requests would be put on a waiting list. As existing coupons reach their 90-day expiration, the Commerce Department has said it could send out coupons to those on the waiting list.

Time is running out. Podesta said in the letter that 1 million requests were on the waiting list and that the number could climb to more than 5 million by early February. Obama supports waiving federal rules to allow the Commerce Department to start sending out more coupons and is planning to include additional money for the digital TV switch in the economic stimulus package it is drafting.

The problems with the converter box coupon program led Consumers Union to call for a delay in the switch. And Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat from Virginia who's the incoming head of a House subcommittee with oversight over telecommunications, said today he was also considering a delay.

But broadcasters, who have spent billions of dollars preparing for the transition and are eager to turn off their old analog signals, oppose a delay. They're pressing for Congress to quickly provide more money to make sure people who need coupons get them.

-- Jim Puzzanghera and Christi Parsons

Photo: Charles Wolfe, a retired software engineer in Sylmar, holds a converter box he bought to covert digital broadcasts for his analog TV. He has had signal problems. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

* This post was updated with additional background about the digital TV transition and a link to Podesta's letter.