Digital TV switch survives House vote

Posted Jan. 28, 2009, at 9:39 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Time may be nearly up for Mainers still without digital-ready television sets after a bill that would have given viewers more time to make the switch from traditional analog signals failed Wednesday in the House.

Without new legislation, Americans will have until Feb. 17 to buy new television sets or equip their old sets with converter boxes under a federal law designed to update the nation’s airwaves. After that date, sets unable to receive digital signals will display nothing.

The bill, which would have delayed the switch until June 12, was considered under suspension of the rules, a procedure that limits debate and requires a two-thirds vote to pass. The vote was 258-168 in favor, with most Democrats voting for it and most Republicans voting against it.

The House, however, will have a second chance next week, when it can take up the bill under regular procedures and require only a majority vote to approve it.

The Senate unanimously approved the change Monday after weeks of reports that too few Americans had received federally financed coupons to buy the digital converter boxes.

According to Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, some 5,600 Mainers remain on a waiting list for digital converter box coupons, which are being given out by the federal government. The coupon allows each household to get up to two $40 vouchers to pay for boxes, but because the program has hit a funding limit there is a waiting list for the coupons.

“It’s important that these Mainers are able to continue to get news and information about local and national events,” Michaud, who voted for the delay, said in a statement late Wednesday.

Some Maine stations, including all carriers of Maine Public Broadcasting Network, already have received permission from the Federal Communications Commission to make the switch early. Other broadcasting stations will begin transmitting digital signals within the next three weeks. The change will not affect Maine television viewers who rely on cable or satellite signals.

“If you don’t have the box or if you haven’t upgraded to a new TV, you have no ability to sit down and turn on the TV,” said Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st Congressional District. She also voted for the delay.

Pingree said few constituents have contacted her office asking for a delay, though she added that more Mainers could be affected than the number of complaints suggests.

“I think a lot of the people who are going to be most vulnerable in this situation aren’t aware of what’s going on,” she said in an interview. “I would expect that if there’s no delay, our phones will ring off the hook.”

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