This week, an agreement by Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking minority member on the Senate Commerce Committee, to an extension of the DTV transition deadline from February 17 until June 12, was announced. The delay has been requested so that issues about the distribution of the $40 government coupons to consumers to ease their purchase of converters to allow analog TVs to pick up digital signals so that they will continue to work after the transition date can be resolved; and so that there can be more targeted information about the transition delivered to groups that many feel may not have received the message about the transition. But Congressional Republicans have thus far blocked attempts by the Obama administration to delay the transition, so this agreement by Senator Hutchinson is viewed as a sign that the extension may very well be approved in the near term. As the transition deadline is only weeks away, if Congress is going to act, it needs to do so immediately, or the effect of any delay will be negligible as the transition will have, for all practical purposes, already occurred.
Most broadcast stations have made plans for the transition – ordering the equipment, scheduling tower crews, coordinating the changes in frequencies with other stations in the same region that may be necessary to accommodate the digital operations. In some cases, stations have already ceasing their analog broadcasting so that the new equipment necessary to accomplish the transition can be installed, or because these stations will be operating digitally on their analog frequency and have had to allow a tower crew or other engineering support to conduct the work necessary to allow the digital operations on the final channel to occur before the February deadline dates. Given the limited number of such crews, not all of these final changes could happen on a single date, so stations have been changing to all digital operations now as the final date approaches. Without Congressional action very soon, the transition will have, for the most part, already occurred.
The compromise proposal which resulted in Senator Hutchison’s agreement involved several changes to the original bill proposed by Senator Rockefeller – changes made so as to ease some of the concerns raised by parties that were worried about the extension of the transition date. For broadcasters who were already set to make the transition, and worried about the costs of spending more money to keep the analog stations in operation past the February 17 deadline, the compromise allows earlier transitions to digital on a voluntary basis. For public safety groups who were to get access to some of the spectrum being vacated by television stations, they are permitted to occupy that spectrum as soon as the stations that block their use terminate the interfering analog operations, and do not need to wait to the end of the transition.
If the remaining Senate Republicans are satisfied with this compromise, and if the House can be convinced to agree to these proposals, we could see action early this coming week on the extension of the transition. To some stations who, for one reason or another (often financial) have had concerns about meeting the February 17 date, this may come as a blessing. With the changes in the bill, for other stations who have already prepared for the changeover, this extension, as modified by Senator Hutchinson may not be the curse that they were worried about. So we will see if everyone may be a winner through this extension – hopefully soon enough that it will be able to make a real difference.