Digital TV changeover suggested for 2009

Farewell, analog. Politicians want to ban the sale of analog televisions soon--and set a firm date for all-digital broadcasts.

WASHINGTON--Millions of American television sets that receive only analog over-the-air broadcasts could go dark if not upgraded by Jan. 1, 2009.

That deadline was suggested in a pair of hearings here Tuesday by members of the U.S. Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The committee is readying legislation expected this year that would require all American televisions to run on digital signals by the end of 2008. That would free up the analog, or 700 MHz, spectrum for other uses such as broadband services and communications for emergency workers.

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What's new:
Lawmakers are readying legislation that would require all American televisions to run on digital signals by the end of 2008, in an effort to free up the analog spectrum for other uses such as broadband services and communications for emergency workers.

Bottom line:
A slew of unanswered questions about the transition promises to keep politicians sparring for months. Among them: Will households with only analog TVs be given digital converter boxes? Who will pick up the tab? And how many homes still rely solely on broadcast TV?

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A transition to an all-digital world may be popular in Washington, but a slew of unanswered questions promises to keep politicians sparring for months, if not through next year. Among them: Will households with only analog TVs be given digital converter boxes? Who will pick up the tab? And how many homes still rely solely on broadcast TV, anyway?

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the proposed transition "the most critical communications issue facing the 109th Congress."

"The bombings last week in London reinforced the immediate need for this spectrum," McCain said, noting that Scotland Yard had to "borrow spectrum" in order to meet its needs.

Under current law, analog television would be cut off on Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85 percent of households are capable of receiving digital signals, whichever comes sooner. Last month, the Federal Communications Commission proposed to move up to March 2006 the date by which all televisions with screen sizes of 25 to 36 inches must contain digital tuners. All televisions, VCRs and DVD players would have to carry the technology by 2007.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, suggested that Congress should set another "hard date" after which it would be illegal to sell analog TV sets in the United States.

The transition to digital TV would hit hardest people who rely solely on analog-based televisions--that is, "over the air" broadcasts received with an antenna. Those viewers would have to purchase televisions equipped with digital tuners or digital-to-analog "set-top" conversion boxes to place atop their analog televisions.

All of the industries represented on the panels, ranging from cable to satellite to broadcast to electronics manufacturers, testified that they are ready to make the shift at the end of 2008. But they're still arguing over the details.

A basic conversion box is expected to cost $50 by 2009, said Michael Kennedy, a senior vice president for Motorola. (Analog consumers may not have to foot the entire bill if the government provides subsidies from tax revenues or some other source.)

Michael Calabrese, vice president and director of the wireless future program at the New America Foundation, urged the government to issue subsidies or rebates, funded by revenue from auctioning off freed-up chunks of the analog spectrum.

But Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said $50 seemed to be a high figure for the units, and that they may cost as little as $35 or $40. "A $50 converter box is really not a lot," he said, adding, "I believe we can have some kind of a program, though I'm not sure what it will look like, for those low-income people who say they need a subsidy."

Nationwide, only about 12 percent of primary television sets and 14 percent of other household televisions would require the conversion boxes, said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents mostly U.S. electronics manufacturers. Shapiro noted that digital TV sales are setting records each quarter and said his association expected 86 percent of American homes to have digital tuners by the cut-off date.

But Gene Kimmelman, senior director of public policy and advocacy for the Consumers Union, argued that Congress should not take the percentage lightly. "By our count, there are 80 million sets out there that could go black," he said.

Options: Cable, satellite
Not all televisions would need the conversion boxes. DirecTV satellite customers already have a digital-to-analog converter included in their monthly service, said Richard Slenker, the company's vice president. Cable customers should see no disruption in service, cable companies say, if their technicians are permitted to use a method called down-conversion. In that process, the cable companies re-engineer their

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