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Dems Apply Transition Heat

Washington— The incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), has begun to pressure the Bush administration to adopt broad eligibility rules for a $1.5 billion program to subsidize digital-to-analog TV converter boxes.

Dingell, joined by 19 other committee Democrats, sent a letter Nov. 15 to the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration to complain that proposed eligibility rules were too narrow.

“Consumers who have purchased analog televisions, which can typically last 15 years or more, deserve a government-backed plan to hold them harmless in this transition,” the letter said.

The NTIA has proposed excluding pay TV homes from the program. It is also considering a means test, so that only low-income homes that rely exclusively on free broadcasting may apply for converter subsidies. In the letter, Dingell and the other Democrats said both ideas were bad ones.

“Limiting eligibility to analog broadcast-only TV households would unfairly disenfranchise consumers who possess perfectly functioning analog televisions,” the letter said. “Likewise, we oppose any effort to impose a means test for program eligibility.”

NTIA spokesman Todd Sedmak said Commerce officials would respond to the letter.

On Feb. 17, 2009, over-the-air analog TV is to cease nationwide, a cutoff that means every analog TV that relies on an antenna becomes useless without a converter box.

Although consumers are rapidly buying digital TVs with integrated tuners, a large inventory of analog TVs at the time of the switchover is expected.

Starting on Jan. 1, 2008, each U.S. household is entitled by law to seek from NTIA up to two coupons worth $40 each to help purchase converters.

The $1.5 billion in federal funding is enough to finance about 37.5 million coupons. But according to the National Association of Broadcasters, 21 million broadcast-only homes today have 45 million analog TVs and pay-TV homes have 28 million analog sets not connected to cable or satellite.

The assumption is that demand for NTIA coupons is likely to swamp supply. But demand projections are expected to change over time. NTIA director John Kneuer has said that by the end of 2008, 140 million digital TV sets will have been sold.

While that is more than one digital TV per U.S. household, it would not necessarily mean that each U.S. household has a digital TV.

When the Democrats take over Congress in January, they are expected to consider adding more money to the converter program. The NTIA letter, which didn’t promise more money, stated that the $1.5 billion in current law was insufficient.