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Barton offers little flexibility on digital TV deadline

U.S. House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton showed little flexibility in his plans for a Dec. 31, 2006, deadline for television broadcasters to complete their switch to digital.

At NAB2005, Barton said he planned to introduce legislation with a 2006 deadline and was willing to adjust that date by less than a year despite worries that the deadline could hurt consumers.

Some lawmakers and broadcasters said an estimated 15 million U.S. households do not subscribe to cable or satellite services and do not have new television sets that can receive the higher-quality digital signals.

Under current law, television broadcasters do not have to stop airing their old analog signals and can show digital until the end of 2006, or whenever 85 percent of the country can see the digital signals, whichever comes later.

Barton said that the bill would also have a subsidy plan to aid low-income consumers who do not own a television set that can receive the new digital signals. About 85 percent of households subscribe to cable or satellite and could get the new digital or converted signals from them.

While Barton said he had the votes to pass the bill, he has so far failed to convince many of his colleagues in the House of Representatives or win support in the Senate.

During a question and answer session following the discussion, a broadcaster lamented the impending shutoff as too quick. When Barton said 10 years (starting in 1996 when the DTV rules were set), the station GM said that 10 years was enough time for establishing the transmission infrastructure of digital signals, but it’s clearly not enough time to get reception right.

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