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Rabbit ears get reprieve with digital TV delay

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Congress voted Wednesday to postpone a nationwide switch to digital TV
  • NEW: The switch from analog had been set for February 17; it'll now be June 12
  • Millions of people have been unprepared to make the switch
  • Bill will allow TV stations to keep analog transmitters plugged in until summer
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(CNN) -- American TV viewers have four extra months to get ready for the day their local stations shut down their analog transmitters, thanks to a delay in the digital TV transition approved by Congress Wednesday.

The government's fund to give people $40 coupons to help buy converters ran out of money in recent weeks.

The government's fund to give people $40 coupons to help buy converters ran out of money in recent weeks.

The House, by a vote of 264 to 158, passed a Senate bill that would reset the death of analog TV to June 12, a measure President Barack Obama is expected to sign.

An estimated 6.5 million homes -- including many elderly, poor and disabled Americans -- would lose TV service after February 17 without the delay, supporters argued.

People who pay for cable or satellite TV service will be unaffected by the change.

The delay was opposed by Republicans who said the government has already given people years to prepare for the switch to digital TV.

"If you don't know this date is coming up, you're probably not watching television," said Rep. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican. "And if you're not watching television, you probably won't know on February 18 whether it occurred or not."

The Commerce Department ran out of money last month for its program to help people pay for converter boxes needed to make older TVs receive the new digital signals. There are 3.7 million homes on the waiting list for the $40 coupons, said Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat.

"It's clear that the only way to avoid a massive disruption affecting 5.7 percent of the TV viewing public is to delay the transition and provide the funding to assure that, when it occurs, it occurs smoothly," he said.

Federal Communication Commission acting Chairman Michael Copps said the delay gives the government "an opportunity to do it better."

"The additional four months provided by the law affords urgently needed time for a more phased transition, including a consumer-friendly converter box coupon program, stepped-up consumer outreach and support -- particularly for vulnerable populations -- and dealing with coverage, antenna and reception issues that went too long unaddressed," Copps said.

He had sent a letter to Congress last month "to express our deep concern" that the FCC was "nowhere near" ready for the deadline "to pull the plug on television service in millions of American homes."

The Federal government raked in $20 billion by selling licenses for the frequencies being vacated by local television stations for other commercial uses.

Some of the frequencies were also reserved for emergency agencies to use for communications.

Republicans said the delay would prevent some emergency agencies from using their new communications systems.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat from New York, said having a working TV is also important for the safety of those with older sets.

"They are going to lose the most important connection to the outside world and emergency response -- the television," he said.

Opponents noted the new date for the end of analog TV will come just as the hurricane season begins. Forcing conversion in February would be safer, they said.

All local stations will eventually pull the plug on the analog transmitters they've used since the invention of television. The stations have begun digital broadcasts over the past several years.

All About Digital TelevisionsU.S. Federal Communications Commission

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