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Tauzin touts analog giveback deadline

Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) threatened broadcasters on Thursday with a hard deadline of 2006 by which they would be required to return their analog spectrum to the government.

"I am concerned that this `soft' deadline is thwarting the certain and swift transition to digital," said Tauzin, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "As a result, I am wiling to consider exploring the idea of imposing a `hard' deadline of 2006." Tauzin addressed industry representatives at a hearing on the digital TV transition before the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee.

Broadcasters are in the process of converting to digital, but it doesn't look like they are going to hit the 2006 deadline Congress suggested in a law passed in 1997. The deadline is more of a guideline than a hard-and-fast rule: the real give-back date comes when 85% of U.S. households can access digital television.

Tauzin wants to jump start the transition so that the government can reclaim and auction the broadcasters' high-powered analog spectrum for new services, such as high-speed wireless.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) proposed another way to do that: require consumer electronics manufacturers to include digital TV tuners in all new television sets by a date certain. Thomson Electronics Director Dave Arland said such a requirement may significantly increase the costs of sets for consumers, and Tauzin agreed with that. But Markey pointed out that once digital receivers were widespread, studios would be motivated to provide digital content, and that in turn would speed the transition.

Disagreements between studios and consumers electronics manufacturers over what content should receive what level of copy protection also is holding up the transition, as is the inability of cable companies and consumer electronics manufacturers to agree on a cable compatibility standard that manufacturers can include in their sets.

Broadcasters and cable operators also still are fighting tooth-and-nail over how much of broadcasters' signal cable operators must carry, and over whether cable operators have to carry both broadcasters' analog and digital signals during the transition.
- Bill McConnell