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Upton Reserves Judgment on Powell Plan

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the point man on digital TV in the House, isn't ready to bless or curse a Federal Communications Commission plan to speed the DTV transition.

"We're going to wait and see," the lawmaker told reporters following a speech to the Consumer Electronics Association's HDTV Summit. The chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee is reserving judgment until the General Accounting Office reports on the analog-to-digital switch completed by Berlin, Germany, last year.

The GAO report is expected in June. The agency's plan is loosely based on the experience in Berlin, where the government subsidized digital-to-analog converters for people who couldn't afford to buy digital sets or subscribe to pay-TV.

Staffers for commission Chairman Michael Powell have approached lawmakers and industry leaders about counting cable subscribers toward a penetration test that will trigger the end of analog service when they receive a broadcast signal that the cable system has converted from digital to analog.

The switch would greatly accelerate the expected date when digital penetration reaches 85% of U.S. homes, the level when broadcasters must return analog spectrum to the government.

Currently, that level isn't expected to be reached until 2010 or later, but the FCC could bring about that day as soon as 2007. Viewers who get those converted cable channels won't get HD pictures or other  benefits of digital service.

The FCC has briefed Congress on the possibility of subsidies, but Hill sources say that portion of the plan is a longshot because of the ballooning federal deficit.