Congress delays DTV switch

Americans will get another four more months to prepare for the digital television transition.

With just a few weeks to go before the original deadline would hit, the House voted Wednesday to delay the switch that would end analog TV transmissions. This postponement means households with old antenna TVs have until June 12 to buy a DTV converter box – and possibly get it at $40 off. If you're unsure whether the transition affects you, check out the Monitor's DTV survival guide.

Democrats are calling the 264-158 House vote a win, and saying the Obama administration now has until the summer to unsnarl this troubled digital roll out. Senators approved the delay unanimously last week, arguing that the government had not properly warned poor, rural, and minority communities.

"The passage of this bipartisan legislation means that millions of Americans will have the time they need to prepare for the conversion," the White House said in a statement. "We will continue to work with Congress to improve the information and assistance available to American consumers in advance of June 12, especially those in the most vulnerable communities."

But even if all of the 6.5 million homes that have analog TVs buy the new digital boxes, some will receive worse service, or no signal at all. The Monitor's technology columnist discovered that:

The first thing you need to know about a digital TV signal is that you either get it, or you don’t. Unlike analog TV, which still produces a fuzzy picture if reception is poor, digital gives you all or nothing. The moment the signal drops below a certain level, the set goes black. The TV industry has an interesting way to describe this: “falling off a cliff.” No kidding.
Discovery two: A digital signal is affected by practically everything – where your TV set is located in your house, the walls in your house, the number of trees in your yard, how close it is to other electronic devices, birds migrating south in the fall. No kidding. A Washington Post story described how a woman who lived on the 20th floor of an apartment building would lose her signal for a few moments every time a plane landed or took off from Reagan National airport.
My third finding: Indoor antennas are almost useless when it comes to digital signals. Oh, if you live in the right place, have no criminal record, and go to church every Sunday, you might get the entire broadcast spectrum. But chances are you’ll end up like me.

So, if your TV relies on an antenna, spend the next four months reading up on how the DTV switch will affect you. And, if all else fails, consider switching to cable or satellite TV, which will be unaffected by the transition in June. Or, forget the tube and turn to Netflix,, and the bevy of TV-network websites that now stream shows the day after they air. These solutions won't be perfect, especially for the poor and rural families that Congress is concerned about, but the road to digital television has been far bumpier than most imagined.

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