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Viewers Must Chip In For DTV Converters

John Kneuer (pronounced "newer"), assistant secretary of commerce, head of the National Telecommunications & Information Association, says NTIA does not expect the government to cover the entire cost of the set-top boxes analog-only sets will need in a digital-only world.

He also suggests there will not be a means test for the boxes, but rather "broad eligibility."

Viewers of analog-only sets will be required to buy the boxes if they want to watch TV on those sets after Feb. 17, 2009, which C-SPAN's Susan Swain pointed out is only 28 days after a new President is sworn in.

The program is not intended to pay for the entire cost of the box, Kneuer told Swain in an interview for cable channel's Communicators series. He estimated the cost between $50 and $75 based on various manufacture res. "It was explicitly contemplated that the $40 would be toward the purchase price and there would likely be a requirement for consumers to make some sort of payment on their own."

NITA is charged with coming up with a $1 billion--up to $1.5 billion--digital-to-analog converter box subsidy program for the digital transition. NTIA has come up with rules for the program, which it has submitted to OMB for vetting.

Kneuer said he was limited in what he could say about the rules, but when asked whether there would be a means test, he suggested there may not be. "You build a record and you look at that record," he said. "In this case we have a fairly broad consensus in the record that while trying to be fiscally responsible and not wanting to fund luxury consumer electronics equipment there is a broad sense that there is very broad cross-section of Americans that are going to be impacted by this and that to the extent possible, they should be eligible."

Asked about comments in the trade press that the transition was analogous to Y2K and whether or not there was a plan B, Kneuer said he wasn't going to second-guess Congress adding that NTIA is putting in place a way to track and record the transition "as it takes place" so it can identify problems. He said NTIA will have an opportunity if it identifies transient problems to take corrective action by taking that information to Congress.

Kneuer said he would seek corrective changes from Congress if need be, but hasn't had the need to to so thus far.

Kneuer praised the NAB's consumer education efforts. "They are taking the right kind of steps.... They'll be doing an in-kind ad campaign that is many, many multiples of the $5 million we have [from Congress for an education campaign].

Kneuer said there is now inter-agency working group between the FCC and NTIA on the transition, saying it would be tough between an administration agency--as NTIA is--and an independent one.

As the administration's chief telecom policy advisory, Kneuer said that industries that were historically looked at as "stovepipe incumbent monopolies. They are clearly tearing those stovepipes down and competing with one another and we are going from a sort of monopoly landscape to a highly competitive landscape."