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Lawmakers Bicker Over Boxes

A crystal clear picture emerged Wednesday from a recent House subcommittee hearing on the status of the digital television transition: No one can agree on how many analog TVs there are, much less how many signal converters will be necessary to keep them working after analog broadcasting ends Feb. 17, 2009.

Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat in charge of the Internet and telecom subcommittee, opened the hearing by declaring the previous Congress underfunded the converter box subsidy program. No. 109 allocated up to $1.5 billion to create and distribute $40 coupons good toward the purchase of converters. After expenses, the funds are expected to turn out about 34 million coupons. Markey quoted a figure of 70 million TVs in U.S. households not hooked up to cable or satellite service. That would leave 36 million TVs couponless.

Unless there are 69 million such TV sets, as Jim Yager testified. Yager, CEO of Barrington Broadcasting, appeared before the subcommittee on behalf of the two major broadcast lobbies--NAB and MSTV. The 69 million figure is NAB's projection for 2009.

Then again, there may be as many as 134 million TV sets that will need a converter of some sort of Congress doesn't let cable downconvert. That was Glenn Britt's message. The Time Warner Cable chief testified that about half of all cable subscribers have analog service--many with no set-top box. Once analog broadcast signals go kaput, those sets won't get off-the-air stations, unless A) they're hooked up to a converter, or B) cable operators convert digital broadcast signals to an analog format.

Cable operators prefer option B, because it would mean retrofitting some 8,500 headends rather than deploying several million set-top boxes. Broadcasters are loathe to allow headend downconversion because they don't want their expensive digital signals degraded. A third option constitutes dual carriage of a passed-through digital signal and a downconverted version of same. This option is not favored by cable operators, who would rather use the bandwidth for money-makers like broadband or phone service. They've nonetheless offered five years of voluntary dual-carriage, presumably to avert a mandate.

As for the number of TVs orphaned by the analog shutdown, the cable estimate leaves 100 million without a subsidized set-top converter. But factor out the cable estimate, carry the NAB projection of 69 million, subtract 66 percent for those who aren't expected to request a coupon and... voila! said Fred Upton (R-Mich.), there will be too many coupons. Further factoring out the NAB projection and plugging in one from the Consumer Electronics Association, which says only 25 million sets will need a converter by 2009, minus the same 66 percent who won't seek a subsidy, and... voila, again, Upton said, there will be waaay too many coupons.

Illinois Republican John Shimkus came up with 440,000 too many coupons, to be exact, while Joe Barton (R-Texas), said one coupon was too many. Anybody could save $60 for a converter by 2009, Barton said, as long as folks know they'll need one, and most don't. The Byrd rule stripped the consumer education language out of the analog deadline bill, essentially ending traditional broadcast TV without telling anyone. Upton, Barton and Dennis Hastart (R-Ill.) have resurrected the education lingo in H.R. 608, a standalone analog deadline enlightenment bill.

Not good enough, growled Democrat John Dingell of Michigan from his corner on the subcommittee. Dingell, chairman of the Commerce Committee of which the Internet and telecom subcom is a part, waged an erstwhile fight in No. 109 to subsidize every analog TV in the nation.

"There's too little appreciation for properly informing the American public," he said. "We're asking ordinary people to pay for a government decision to make their televisions obsolete."

Gene Green (D-Texas) suggested that "maybe companies that have sold analog sets should help pay for those coupons."

Green's idea didn't grow legs, but the TV-selling industry still got what-for from Markey, who laid into a witness from a big-boxer during the hearing. Markey asked Michael Vitelli, senior vice president of Best Buy, if every single one of Best Buy's retail outlets would carry converters.

"How many will be on shelves on Jan. 1, 2008?" Markey asked.

"We don't know yet," Vitelli said.

"Will they be in all stores?"

"We don't know yet."

"That's not what we want to hear," Markey said, in a pollen-induced Luca Brazzi voice. He repeated the question, adding that he wanted to illustrate the "scope" of the situation by way of the presidential election in France. There are 23 million homes in France, Markey said.

"That's how many households have analog TVs," he said, before again leaning on Vitelli, who didn't cave. Vitelli later explained that in some cases, converters would be dispatched from a "central location" to assure they went where they were most needed, rather than gathering dust on shelves where there was no demand.

Vitelli also testified that Best Buy is still selling analog sets, but he said that by May 1, "there won't be any analog TVs in Best Buy." By March 29, there were already no analog sets to be had at the Falls Church, Va. store, where all display sets had digital tuners, right down to the smallest--a $130, 14-inch "flat tube" Insignia.