Lawmakers Worry About Upcoming Digital TV Switch

Lawmakers are uneasy with assurances they're getting that when old-style analog TV broadcasts go off the air in early 2009, consumers with non-digital televisions and traditional antennas won't be left in the dark.

"I have a great apprehension that a great mess lies before us," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., said Wednesday.

Congress has ordered broadcasters to shut off old-style analog TV broadcasts by Feb. 17, 2009, and replace them with sharper digital ones. When that happens, millions of households with pre-digital TVs that rely on antennas will need to have purchased and installed digital converter boxes that will cost a minimum of $60 each.

"If we don't get this transition right, then (we will be) dealing with constituents," said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa. "The government has broken their TV sets."

As of June 2005 there were 15.4 million television households in the United States that received over-the-air signals only, the Federal Communications Commission says. Add to that homes that receive cable or satellite, but also have sets that rely on antennas, and the number gets larger.

Digital TV signals have sharper pictures, enable stations to broadcast more than one stream on the same channel and take up less spectrum than analog signals.

But the challenge is bigger than just converting signals to 1s and 0s: Manufacturers are now developing and building low-cost converter boxes, but retailers are yet to stock them. Consumers, meanwhile, are largely unaware they will need to buy and install one. The boxes aren't to go on sale until next January, 13 months before they will be needed.

"We have a lot of educating to do," said Jim Yager, who spoke on behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters.

To help consumers absorb the cost, Congress set aside $1.5 billion to subsidize converter box purchases. Every household, regardless of whether it needs a box, will be eligible to receive two coupons, each worth $40, that can be used to buy two converter boxes. The coupons, to be distributed on a first-come first-serve basis, must be requested between Jan. 1, 2008 and March 31, 2009.

LG Electronics vice president John Taylor told the committee the simple digital converters his company is designing for the transition will be ready in early 2008.

But Best Buy vice president Michael Vitelli wouldn't guarantee the boxes would be on the shelves in all Best Buy stores. And in his written testimony, Taylor said retailers probably wouldn't begin installing the payment system needed to handle government-issued coupons for digital converter boxes until the first quarter of 2008.

"The time for retailers to make changes to their systems generally ought not to be the year-end holiday selling season," Vitelli said. "If any retailer is able to be 'up and running' early in 2008, more power to them."