Despite a year of warnings that television was going digital, consumers are not ready to make the transition, according to President Barack Obama and telecom officials. So the Democratic-controlled Senate unanimously passed a measure yesterday that would push back the switch from analog to digital TV broadcasts to June 12, giving the 6.5 million U.S. households (according to The Nielsen Company) unable to receive digital TV programming a chance to buy converter boxes. The House is set to approve the legislation today.

Among the reasons for the delay: The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) ran out of $40 coupons it was distributing to offset the $50-to-$70 cost of buying a device to convert traditional analogue TVs to digital. Nearly 2.6 million viewers had to be put on a waiting list for the coupons, the Associated Press reports. People with digital TVs, who subscribe to digital cable service or have satellite dishes don't have to worry about getting a converter or taking any other steps when the change takes effect.

The delay is expected to free up funds from coupons that expired because they were not redeemed within the 90-day period allotted. “Of the $1.5 billion allocated for coupons, about half has been paid out for redeemed coupons, while the other half is committed to coupons issued but not yet redeemed, which is why there is a waiting list," according to a January 14 letter (pdf) sent by House Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee to President Barack Obama. "Coupons not redeemed in 90 days expire, allowing about 300,000 coupons to be re-issued to other households every week."

Congress in 2005 voted to switch broadcast signals from analog to more efficient digital to free up so-called "white spaces," areas of unused wireless spectrum, for commercial wireless services and interoperable emergency-response networks. Demand for the switch can also be traced back to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, after which the 9/11 Commission recommended additional radio spectrum for first responders, taking into account the difficulty police and firefighters had in trying to communicate with one another or with rescue helicopters in the air that day.

AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications have already paid $16 billion for the rights to these white spaces, Reuters reports. The revamped legislation extends their licenses for an extra 116 days, since the companies won't have access to all of the space they bought before June 12.

Broadcasters opposed the delay, because they complain it will cost an estimated $22 million to continue airing shows in both analogue and digital for another four months. To assuage them, the bill allows stations to make the switchover before the new deadline if they permit public safety agencies to use the vacant airwaves as soon as it becomes available.

Image: ©; Robert Payne