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Digital TV Reverberations

Rep. Rick Boucher (D.-Va.) is a member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet and an architect of telecom policy on Capitol Hill. He spoke to members of the American Cable Association at the group’s Washington Summit on Wednesday. Here is an excerpt of his remarks:

The date for the termination of analog broadcasts is Feb. 19, 2009. After that, all transmission of television signals over the air will be of digital format.

We are going to keep that date. … Congress will not adjust it.

Having said that, I would also tell you that we have some broad concerns about how effective this transition is going to be.

There are about 70 million television sets that are analog that are in use today. About 20 million homes do not have either a cable or satellite subscription and, of course, all of the sets of those folks are over-the-air dependent.

But those really are of the minority of sets that are the subject of our concern. Because even more Americans have homes in which there is a cable connection or a satellite connection but it perhaps is only on one floor of the home, and on the second floor of the home, in a bedroom or bathroom, there are other analog television sets that have rabbit ears or are connected to an outside antenna.

Congress appropriated last year $1.5 billion for subsidies for the digital-to-analog converter boxes that would enable people to continue to keep their analog sets in operation.

We are deeply concerned that that amount of money is not sufficient and there will be millions of very angry people across the country who will not get a subsidy… Congress will feel the reverberation of that. Broadcasters will feel the reverberation of that. Cable systems, to some extent, depending on what you are sending into the home, may also feel the reverberation of that.

So there may be an effort … to try and increase the allocation of that funding. I certainly think we should increase it. I was arguing for about $4 billion, which I think perhaps would have been adequate to do the job well and provide a converter box at no cost to anybody that needed one in order to keep their analog set in operation.

The second major problem [is] people are not aware that we have this cutoff date of Feb. 19, 2009. They don’t know what the consequence of that would be for their ability to continue using their existing television sets.

We also need to have a labeling requirement, and hopefully we’ll pass that into law very shortly, that will say that every set on a retail shelf that does not have a digital tuner will have to clearly indicate that fact and also indicate that as of Feb. 19, 2009, that set would not be able to receive over-the-air television signals.

I think it’s important that we have a public-relations campaign. The broadcast industry, in partnership with the consumer-electronics industry, is planning to launch that effort.

In Berlin, where they had a flash-cut transition not dissimilar from what we’re planning to do here, the television stations starting about two years out started running scrolls across the bottom of the screen; and indicated that the cutoff was coming and gave a number or a Web site where people could go for information.

I am hoping that the broadcast industry will do the same here in the U.S. And to the extent that they don’t, perhaps [cable] should, in order to give people the information that they will need.