Politicians squabble over digital-TV funds

Democrats urge spending more on converter boxes to keep older sets working after 2009, but Republicans say funding is sufficient.

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
WASHINGTON--Democratic and Republican politicians bickered on Wednesday over whether to spend more money helping Americans get analog TVs ready for a 2009 shift to all-digital broadcasts.

At a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing here, Democrats insisted that a digital-TV law approved by a Republican-controlled Congress in late 2005 did not allocate enough tax dollars on coupons designed to defray the costs of digital-to-analog converter boxes.

Under the law, all U.S. households--regardless of income level or other factors--will be eligible to apply for up to two $40 coupons to help pay for converter devices, designed to prevent analog TVs from going dark after the nonnegotiable transition date, set for February 17, 2009.

Up to 22.5 million coupons will be available to anyone through a first wave of funding. Congress may allow funds for more than 11 million additional vouchers if the first wave runs out, but only households that certify that they rely on over-the-air broadcasts will be eligible for those handouts.

Republicans at Wednesday's event said that approach provides more than enough money to cover everyone who desires such assistance, but Democrats responded that the program should be far broader and free of eligibility restrictions at any phase.

"We should not forget that we are asking ordinary people to pay for a government decision that essentially makes their television sets obsolete."
--Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.

"We should not forget that we are asking ordinary people to pay for a government decision that essentially makes their television sets obsolete," said Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat. "For that reason, we should ensure that this transition is as painless as possible for American consumers."

Some Democrats pointed to broadcast industry estimates that approximately 70 million televisions in American homes--albeit the majority of which are not the household's "primary" set--are used only for receiving over-the-air broadcasts, as opposed to having satellite or cable connectivity. The politicians said Congress should have approved $3.6 billion, or more than double the funding level that is currently in place, so that each of those sets can receive subsidized upgrades.

Republican committee leaders defended their original approach by citing another set of statistics. According to Federal Communications Commission numbers and a recent National Association of Broadcasters survey, consumers are expected to request only about 21.8 million coupons for converter boxes, theoretically leaving leftover coupons even after the first wave of funding.

"It's just a dwindling majority of Americans who use analog TV sets with over-the-air antennas," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. "Fewer still will want taxpayers to give them a subsidy. After all, they are taxpayers too."

Purchasing a converter box, which is expected to cost between $50 and $70, is not the only way for Americans to continue watching television after the switchover. They may subscribe to satellite or cable services, which do not expect to require any new equipment during the change, or they may purchase televisions, DVD players, or other devices equipped with digital tuners.

Several politicians voiced a concern that consumers who walk into electronics stores to buy televisions still don't understand what the transition means. Republican committee leaders continued to push for passage of a bill that would require retailers to place "conspicuous" signs near equipment that isn't digital TV-compatible.

Michael Vitelli, a senior vice president at Best Buy, received a scolding from Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the panel's chairman and a frequent critic of corporations, when he acknowledged that the megaretailer does not put stickers or other signage on the analog televisions it continues to sell.

"I think our committee is going to insist you do more from now on, and we want your association to warn all consumers that their (analog) TV sets will not work in two years," Markey said.

Markey and others also questioned whether an adequate supply of converter boxes will be available by January 1, 2008, when households can begin applying for the federal coupons. LG Electronics USA Vice President John Taylor assured the politicians that his company would produce enough of the devices.

Vitelli said Best Buy and other retailers will endeavor to have enough in stock in all of their stores, though when pressed by Markey and Dingell, he couldn't guarantee that every Best Buy outlet nationwide would have the devices on their shelves.

"One answer might be (to) have it in all stores, one answer might be (to) air-ship it the next day," Vitelli said.

Amid their misgivings, politicians from both parties emphasized that they had no intention of backing off on the hard date for the transition. The idea behind the switch is to set aside a chunk of the newly freed-up analog TV spectrum for use by public-safety workers, as recommended by the 9/11 Commission. The feds plan to auction off the rest of the spectrum to technology companies that hope to build more robust, affordable wireless broadband networks.

"The stakes are too high to gamble," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the panel's co-chairman. "We've come too far to risk straying from this well-plotted course."