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Left Behind, FCC-Style

The Federal Communications Commission wants to know who will be left behind when TV stations shut down their old analog signals.

The commission soon will collect data about the roughly 35 million Americans who won't be equipped to receive DTV channels when the country reaches the digital penetration level that will trigger the federal takeback of analog channels from broadcasters.

Are they poor? If not, do they care?

Those questions must be answered before the government can figure how to deal with households that haven't gone digital by the time the DTV transition comes to an end some time after 2006, FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree told the New America Foundation last week.

The government's plan for rolling out digital television calls for TV stations to give back their old analog channels when all but 15% of households are equipped to watch a DTV signal.

That's the theory, anyway. In reality, however, conventional wisdom holds that Washington will be afraid to cut off TV to so many people, especially if they are too poor to buy new digital equipment or if they are disproportionately elderly.

Ferree has suggested people who can't afford DTV equipment on their own be provided free or subsidized digital-to-analog converters that will keep their old sets working. There would be no point in subsidizing all, however, if many in the 15% category are financially secure or simply don't care about TV.