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Copyright 2005 Gannett Company Inc.

USA TODAY

July 13, 2005, Wednesday, FIRST EDITION

By Paul Davidson

From Lexis Nexis

In a boost to the nation's transition to digital TV, broadcasters told Congress Wednesday they would agree to give up their analog channels and start broadcasting only in digital by 2009.

Bipartisan support has been building for a Jan. 1, 2009 deadline in the House and Senate. But broadcasters had resisted the cutoff. They fear that many consumers with analog TV sets who get only broadcast channels via antenna would see their screens go dark.

Yet Edward Fritz, head of the National Association of Broadcasters, told the Senate Commerce Committee: "Broadcasters accept Congress will implement a 2009 date for the end of analog broadcasting."

Under current law, broadcasters must return their analog channels to the government by Dec. 31, 2006, but only in markets where 85 percent of homes can receive digital signals. It could take decades to meet that threshold.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are eager to reclaim the analog airwaves to improve public safety radio communication. Congress also wants to auction the spectrum to wireless high-speed Internet services. Such an auction is expected to raise up to $30 billion for federal coffers.

A draft bill setting the deadline has bogged down in the House over whether the government should subsidize the purchase of $50 converter boxes for the 15 percent of households that get their TV signals via antennas. The boxes would convert digital signals to analog.

At the Senate hearing, Consumers Union director Gene Kimmelman said all consumers should be eligible for a subsidy, even affluent ones and cable or satellite homes with extra sets that use antennas.

"These are folks who went out and bought a television and retailers told them they would work," Kimmelman said.

But some Republicans said a subsidy should be for the indigent. "I worry about the people out there who cannot afford the boxes," says Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the committee chairman.

Officials also wrangled over which channels cable systems must carry on Jan. 1, 2009.

Fritz said all analog TVs should continue to get an analog signal via cable while digital sets get a digital signal. That would require cable to send two digital signals for each channel, converting one of them to analog.

Cable officials said providers would do that for most channels but want the option to send analog-only for less-popular channels.

Editor's note: In congressional testimony yesterday, National Cable & Telecommunications Association President & CEO Kyle McSlarrow reiterated the industry's desire to "down-convert" the digital signals from must-carry broadcasters at the cable headend as a way to ensure that existing analog-only viewers do not lose access to those stations during the transition. Cable is trying to avoid having to carry both the broadcaster's analog and digital version of the same signal.

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