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Reps. Seek Digital-Decision Delay

A group of lawmakers representing mostly rural or African-American districts Monday asked Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell to delay a vote on his plan to accelerate the transition to all-digital TV. 

 The lawmakers are worried that Powell will ask his fellow FCC commissioners to vote on the plan next week. “Surely there can be several months of congressional debate and input on this critical matter during the first quarter of next year,” wrote Reps. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C.; John Lewis, D-Ga.; Mike Ross, D-Ark.; Bernie Thompson, D-Miss.; Marion Berry, D-Ark.; and Bob Etheridge, D-N.C. in a letter to Powell.

The plan, developed by FCC Media Bureau Staff, would set Jan. 1, 2009, as the date when TV stations must give up their old analog channels and operate all-digital. To continue receiving TV service at that point, viewers would need to subscribe to pay TV, purchase a digital set or buy converters that will keep old analog sets working.
Under current FCC rules the TV stations won’t be obligated to go all-digital for another decade or so.
Powell envisions Congress subsidizing the cost of converters for low-income Americans, but only Congress has the power to sanction such a program. “We do not see any substantive language in the Media Bureau Plan that would protect low income consumers from losing their analog television service or any provision to assist them with making the conversion to digital without the purchase of expensive digital equipment which so many minorities cannot afford,” the lawmakers wrote.
Despite the lawmakers’ worries, some FCC officials and industry lobbyists say no vote on the plan is slated for this month, and even a vote in Januaryis unlikely.  But staff for the lawmakers say rumors persist that Powell will attempt to bring the matter to a vote with only a few days notice.