Lawmakers Eye 2009 for Digital TV Conversion

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House and Senate lawmakers are beginning to settle on a date for ending traditional analog broadcasts and transitioning to digital frequencies. Congress is proposing a $3 billion program to help consumers buy converter boxes for older televisions.


On Monday we focus on technology. Today, keeping analog TV alive.

Congress has taken one more small step toward mandating the beginning of the digital broadcast age in this country. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate are beginning to settle on a date for ending traditional analog broadcasts. To ease the pain, lawmakers want to help viewers buy equipment that will keep their old TVs from going dark. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.


It's amazing just how many groups are eager to get TV broadcasters to abandon their old analog signals and to start using new digital frequencies they've been given. Bob Gurss of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials says first responders desperately need those frequencies so they can talk to one another.

Mr. BOB GURSS (Association of Public Safety Communications Officials): Because in many of the urban areas of the country in particular, their radio channels are very congested and there are too many police offices, for example, sharing the same radio channels.

ABRAMSON: The federal government can't wait for the chance to sell off these frequencies to wireless providers and put tens of billions of dollars in expected revenue into the Treasury. And the wireless industry is just as eager to buy those frequencies to improve cell phone reception and offer new services. All these groups have been waiting for years for the industry to switch to digital, but the process is way behind schedule. So Senator John McCain proposed a government mandate. In April of 2007, he said, analog broadcasting should cease.

Well, that was a little too soon for some people. Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters says there are lots of viewers with old analog TVs hooked up to antennas.

Mr. DENNIS WHARTON (National Association of Broadcasters): There are 21 million households in the United States relying exclusively on over-the-air television as their only source of TV service, and that these people could be disenfranchised from any access to local television service if this transition is not handled carefully.

ABRAMSON: Senators on the Commerce Committee agree and voted to set 2009 as the date for shifting to digital. If that still sounds like an awfully long wait, you have to remember that under the current standard, broadcasters don't have to give up their old analog frequencies at all until the vast majority of consumers can get digital signals. Even with the long wait, lawmakers are still worried about a consumer revolt if millions of people can't watch whatever the hit show will be on April 8th of 2009. So Congress is proposing a $3 billion program to help consumers buy converter boxes. Jeannine Kenney of Consumers Union says it's only fair.

Ms. JEANNINE KENNEY (Consumers Union): If the government is going to insist that this be a government-driven transition rather than a market-driven transition, then consumers be compensated for the cost they will have to bear to adopt new technology.

ABRAMSON: House lawmakers want to spend a lot less to help buy those digital converter boxes. That's just one of many details Congress must work out as lawmakers struggle to complete a process that's been grinding forward for decades. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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