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Digital TV switch set for early 2009

Senate votes to end over-the-air analog TV in move to free up radio spectrum for broadband links.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
4 min read
It's almost official: Starting Feb. 18, 2009, millions of televisions in American households will go black unless they're outfitted to receive all-digital broadcasts.

The deadline became final on Wednesday as part of a broader spending bill that the U.S. Senate approved by an ultra-thin margin. Stuck in a deadlock over proposals involving Medicaid and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the legislation earned approval only after Vice President Dick Cheney flew back from a Middle East trip to push the 50-50 vote over the edge.

The 2009 deadline will not affect the vast majority of Americans who already subscribe to cable or satellite TV. But households relying on an antenna to receive "over-the-air" analog broadcasts must acquire a digital tuner to continue receiving TV shows.

The Senate's action effectively ends months of debate and solidifies a compromise politicians made this weekend with the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier versions of the Senate bill had called for an April 7, 2009 deadline, while the House had pushed for Dec. 31, 2008, as the cutoff date.

By the time of the 2009 switch, the government will have auctioned the remaining spectrum to companies interested in deploying wireless technologies. The proceeds are estimated at about $10 billion by the Congressional Budget Office. The auction is supposed to begin no later than Jan. 7, 2008.

Wednesday's vote won immediate praise from the technology industry, which sees the imminent auction as a breeding ground for business opportunities.

"It's just about the best Christmas present that I can think of coming to the tech sector from the public policy process," said Janice Obuchowski, executive director of the High Tech DTV Coalition, a group of 19 trade associations and technology companies including AT&T, Dell, Cisco Systems, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Texas Instruments. "It's really great spectrum, and it's going to yield some great applications."

Analog TV signals use the 700MHz frequency band, meaning that by nature, they travel farther than those on bands used by the wireless and electronics industries today. Reusing that spectrum could mean easier and cheaper deployment of broadband networks--and translate to more affordable, widespread high-speed Internet access for consumers.


The compromise also settled differences over the amount of money to be set aside for a set-top box subsidy program for those still relying on over-the-air analog broadcasts.

Before Wednesday's action, a 1997 law stipulated that analog television would have be cut off on Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85 percent of households are capable of receiving digital signals, whichever arrived sooner. A slice of that spectrum would be handed over to police, fire, ambulance and other public safety responders who rely on the analog spectrum to communicate.

But eight years later, with the transition nowhere near that percentage mark and the 9/11 Commission warning of the perils of inadequate spectrum, politicians and interest groups stepped up the pressure to set a hard deadline. Reports of bungled communications during Hurricane Katrina upped the urgency.

The final bill also earmarks $1 billion for upgrading emergency communications equipment.

President Bush must sign the package into law before it takes effect. Because the House of Representatives also must approve it--which is expected to be just a formality--it was unclear Wednesday when it would reach the White House.

Upgrading the rabbit ears
American households have until the February 2009 deadline to ensure that their televisions are capable of receiving digital broadcasts.

According to congressional estimates, less than 15 percent of households rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasts. According to estimates by the Federal Communications Commission, that number will drop to 7 percent by 2009.

But advocacy group Consumers Union said that will still leave an unconscionable number of individual sets--many of them operated by elderly and low-income viewers--ill-equipped to meet the changes.

Households that already rely solely on cable or satellite broadcasting should not have to make any changes. Satellite services, such as DirecTV, are already capable of converting signals, and most cable companies intend a seamless transition, such as re-engineering their signals at the source, so that no extra home hardware is necessary.

Many are already conscious of the switch. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, TV manufacturers offer more than 600 models of digital TV products, including integrated sets, digital monitors and set-top receivers. Since they began releasing the devices in 1998, they have sold more than 13 million products.

FCC rules require all television sets and other TV receivers on the market to contain digital tuners by March 1, 2007.

In short, only those who continue to rely solely on over-the-air broadcast stations should have to make adjustments. Short of buying a new digital-ready television, they can opt for a digital-to-analog converter box, which manufacturers estimate will cost about $50 by 2009.

The approved Senate package would dispense up to $1.5 billion in government subsidies to households, which may request up to two $40 vouchers to use toward purchasing set-top boxes.

But Consumers Union argued those funds are sorely inadequate to meet those needs and would still leave $2 billion in overall out-of-pocket costs for consumers.

Jeannine Kenney, a senior policy analyst for the organization, also criticized the bill for setting aside only $5 million for consumer education. "Consumers will have no idea what's coming and what they need to do to prepare for it, making it likely that tens of millions of television sets will go black on Feb. 17, 2009," she said.