Digital TV deadline could be 2/17/09;Conversion from analog in works
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December 20, 2005 Tuesday
By David Lieberman
Congress is poised to make Feb. 17, 2009, the hard-and-fast date for the national conversion to digital TV -- ending the more than 60-year era of analog broadcasts and potentially making millions of analog TV sets obsolete.
The digital transition was included in a $40 billion deficit-reduction bill that the House passed early Monday. The Senate is expected to finish work on the measure later in the week and send it to President Bush for his signature.
The government is eager for the transition to occur. Federal officials hope to collect more than $10 billion by auctioning off the spectrum now used for analog TV and allocating some of it to emergency services.
The slow initial sales of digital TV sets put pressure on Congress to delay the transition date, which had been set for the end of 2006, or when 85% of a TV market could watch digital broadcasts.
Under the legislation, people who want to keep their analog sets will be able to apply to the government for subsidies. Each household can get up to two vouchers, worth $40 apiece, that can help pay for boxes that convert digital signals to analog. The bill sets $1.5 billion aside for that purpose.
But under the bill, people will have to request the vouchers to get them. And there's no guarantee that the fund will be large enough to cover everyone.
"How many people are going to know they have to send an application to the Department of Commerce?" says Consumers Union's Gene Kimmelman.
"There's something fundamentally unfair about making perfectly good analog TV sets go black because the government wanted to change things."
The fund is intended primarily for owners of about 73 million television sets that now receive programming from over-the-air analog transmissions -- and particularly the 21 million homes that don't have cable or satellite service.
But Kimmelman says 85 million cable and satellite customers might also have to buy digital TVs or decoders. That's because federal law bars providers from "degrading" a broadcast signal, and the bill doesn't provide an exemption to convert broadcasters' digital and high-definition programs to analog.
Still, trade groups involved in the debate applauded the bill.
"We'll continue to work hard to educate consumers about the transition and to help prepare all Americans for the 2009 transition date," National Cable & Telecommunications Association CEO Kyle McSlarrow said in a statement.
National Association of Broadcasters CEO David Rehr said his group is "encouraged that the legislation thwarts the cable industry's desire to degrade delivery of HDTV pictures to consumers."