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More Dough Sought for DTV Boxes

Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, and other consumer groups have written House Energy & Commerce Committee members calling for more money for digital-to-analog converters in its DTV transition bill.

The draft bill, opening statements on which are being delivered Tuesday, sets aside $830 million for the boxes (after administrative costs), compared to the $3 billion (before administrative costs) set aside in a Senate version of the bill approved last week by the Commerce Committee.

The boxes will allow analog sets to work after broadcasters pull the plug on analog, most likely sometime in 2009, and return that analog spectrum to the government for auction.

According to the groups, that $830 million would only cover a fourth of the 80 million analog-only sets, though legislators are expecting that number to drop over the next three years.

"We urge your opposition to the draft Digital Television Transition Act of 2005 because it sharply limits funding required to keep those TV sets operable," the groups wrote, "leaving millions of American consumers in the dark. We ask instead for your strong support for an alternative, fully funded, consumer compensation and education program that ensures all consumers, including those most vulnerable, are held harmless from the DTV transition."

The House bill is not meant to make the process particularly easy, requiring application forms, and redeemable coupons, with only about 10.3 millions homes (if each takes its maximum 2 vouchers) before the money runs out. The idea is to select for those who really need one by not making the process too easy.

Also, since it is a first-come, first-served subsidy, it could be used up on cable or satellite households wanting to take care of second or third sets, leaving slower-on-the-uptake (or minority populations not eager or comfortable with dealing with lots of government forms) to pay for the boxes themselves.

The government subsidy is $40 per box (they are expected to cost $50-$60).

The groups also argue that making the subsidy application forms available online will unfairly disadvantage those without Internet access, again more likely to be the viewers with analog-only sets who most need the subsidy.