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DTV Boxes Could Cost $1 Billion

House Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) predicted Wednesday that the government will have to fork over $1 billion or so to make sure Americans who don’t subscribe to cable or satellite TV can continue to receive free over-the-air television when broadcasters switch to all-digital programming.

Not exactly chump change, he said, but worth the reward of speeding the day when the government reclaims their old analog channels and auctions them off to wireless companies and other wealthy customers.

“One billion is nothing to scoff at," he said during a hearing on DTV Wednesday, but reauctioning the frequencies “should bring in many more times that amount to the Treasury.”

Barton has been pushing colleagues to set a “hard” deadline of Dec. 31, 2006 for reclaiming analog channels, rather than waiting for until the U.S. meets the FCC’s current open-ended deadline.

Such a relatively quick switch to all-DTV would require the government to buy $100 converter boxes for the 10 million homes that will not have either a DTV set capable of receiving over-the-air signals or a pay-TV subscription that will keep the programming coming.

The notion of a hard deadline is gaining converts on Capitol Hill because wireless companies and emergency departments are clamoring for more communications channels.

Also, the government is predicted to be able to raise billions, even tens of billions, to help close the budget deficit if an auction is held soon.

Motorola, which hopes to create new wireless and DTV markets for itself, pledged to do what it can to move things along. The company is offering to have a $67 converter on the market if the government completes the DTV switch by early 2007.

If Motorola makes good on its offer, the government could subsidize converters for one-third less than Barton is predicting.

Broadcasters oppose any hard date for completing the transition unless they are assured cable carriage for all of their multicast channels.