02.21.2005 08:00 AM
Politicians explore hard deadline for DTV

Aware they are handling a hot potato that could anger constituents, members of Congress last week explored ways to speed up the DTV transition without disenfranchising the remaining Americans who don’t subscribe to pay television services.

If anything came from the hearing, it appears some legislators have tuned their political antennas to what might happen if millions of angry constituents suddenly lose their over-the-air TV signals.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), about 21 million homes, or 19 percent of U.S. households, get their TV signals over-the-air using antennas. Nearly half of the 21 million homes that depend on over-the-air reception have incomes under $30,000.

Analog TV sets now in use would be useless by the end of 2006 — the date Congress would like the transition to be complete — without a digital-to-analog converter box. Jong Kim, an executive vice president at LG Electronics, told the panel that a digital-to-analog converter box would initially would cost about $100, but the price would likely drop into the $50-$70 range.

In order not to deprive millions of low-income voters of their free TV, several legislators have floated the idea that the government should pay for converters for the poor. There were suggestions that the government issue a voucher for those who qualify for a free converter. Most of the current proposals would pay for the converter boxes from revenue generated when the broadcaster’s analog spectrum is auctioned after the transition.

The current December 2006 shutoff date is a “soft” deadline. According to law it could be pushed back until 85 percent of homes in a market can get digital TV. Nationally, only 12 percent of homes currently have digital sets, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Two House Energy and Commerce Committee members — Reps. Joe Barton, R-Tex., the chairman, and Fred Upton, R-Mich.—said they would introduce legislation that would eliminate the 85 percent provision in order to speed the transition. But to do that, Barton, Upton and other lawmakers said Congress would have to ensure that people who use analog TVs with antennas could still use their sets.

Markey, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said Congress must be swayed first by consumer concerns in setting a hard deadline. Issues such as how the subsidy program would work must be properly addressed first, he said.

Markey also noted how many consumers today are buying new analog sets without being informed by sales clerks of the digital switch.

There is, however, significant support for setting a hard deadline for the return of broadcasters’ analog spectrum. Adopting a fixed date will provide regulatory certainty to all industries involved in the DTV transition, said CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro.

He called on broadcasters to more aggressively promote their digital broadcast channels, both during analog broadcasts and in TV program listings. In addition, he said broadcast stations must fully construct their facilities to reach all the viewers of their analog signal with a digital signal.

The only broadcaster to testify was Jim Yager, CEO of Barrington Broadcasting, who said it is premature to discuss the end of the transition without first resolving a number of policy impediments that could block consumers from reaping the full benefits of DTV.

He said among the remaining stumbling blocks are questions surrounding what broadcast DTV services cable companies will permit their subscribers to view.

Yager said the shutdown problem is not limited to a single TV receiver in 20 million homes. “Including second and third sets in satellite and cable homes, there are 73 million television sets in this country that rely solely on over-the-air signals,” he said. “A premature hard date sends these 73 million sets to the local landfill.”

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