House panel cancels meeting on digital TV delay

WASHINGTON Wed Jan 21, 2009 9:43pm GMT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats abruptly canceled a meeting on a bill delaying the nationwide transition to digital television signals, citing opposition from Republicans.

The U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee had been due on Wednesday to consider legislation extending the transition date to June 12 from its current February 17 deadline.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the chairman of the committee, issued a statement on the cancellation referring to Republican opposition to a Senate version of the digital tv delay.

"Without a short one-time extension, millions of households will lose all television reception," Waxman warned.

A Waxman spokeswoman said he is willing to work with Republicans to craft a compromise.

Many Democratic lawmakers fear an estimated 20 million mostly poor, elderly and rural households are not ready for the transition that requires owners of older television sets receiving over-the-air signals to buy a converter box or subscribe to cable or satellite TV.

Many Republicans oppose a delay, arguing it will create even more confusion and uncertainty.

"No matter when you postpone it, there are still going to be people who are not ready," said Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, a Republican on the committee. "The quickest way is to move."

Jessica Zufolo, an analyst at Medley Advisors, gave a delay about a 50-50 chance of occurring, due to the packed congressional schedule and nearing transition date.

"Right now we're in the legislative weeds, which are sometimes very difficult to traverse," Zufolo said. "The House and Senate is so overwhelmed with so many things."

Advocates of a delay say it would give the federal government time to fill a backlog of consumer requests for $40 coupons to help defray the cost of a converter box.

BOOST FROM VERIZON

Momentum had been building for a delay since President Barack Obama backed it earlier this month.

CTIA, a wireless trade association, contends a delay could hurt confidence in the FCC's spectrum auctions.

AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications paid a collective $16 billion at an FCC auction for spectrum used by television broadcasters that would be vacated after the switch.

The effort for a delay got a further boost in recent days when Verizon reversed its earlier opposition to the delay. AT&T had already said it would support a short delay.

Democrats in the Senate are working on a similar bill, but a bid to move it was blocked last week by Republicans.

A spokesman for bill sponsor, Sen. John Rockefeller, said there were discussions on bringing it forward again this week.

"We do know that support is growing," Zufolo said, citing Verizon's new stance. But she still called predicting the odds a "crapshoot."

(Editing by Tim Dobbyn)