June 29, 2005

Move to Digital seen blanking up to 80 million TVs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Consumer advocates on Wednesdaywarned that up to 80 million television sets could go darkafter a transition to digital broadcast signals and said thegovernment should help owners get special converter boxes.

About 15 percent of U.S. households rely on over-the-airtelevision signals, and about 39 percent of households have atleast one television that is not connected to satellite orcable television service, according to a survey by ConsumersUnion and the Consumer Federation of America.

Congress and the Federal Communications Commission aretrying to speed the broadcast industry's transition from analogsignals to digital ones to free up valuable spectrum. Lawmakersare considering legislation that would set Jan. 1, 2009, as thedeadline for finishing the switch.

"The first rule Congress must abide by is do no harm toconsumers," said Gene Kimmelman, public policy director forConsumers Union. "We can only support a hard date transition ifthe costs are not borne by consumers who have done nothingwrong and just want their TVs to work."

He suggested that the government should subsidize converterboxes for most of those television sets, potentially costingmore than $3.5 billion. Industry estimates put the cost ofconverter boxes at about $50 each.

The Consumer Electronics Association has projected asmaller number of television sets -- 33.6 million -- would beaffected by the switch.

"The (consumer groups') survey appears to assume that anyTV not connected to cable or satellite is connected to abroadcast antenna," said Michael Petricone, CEA vice presidentfor technology policy. He said millions of sets are used onlyfor video games and movies.

Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives put off ahearing until later this summer to consider digital televisionlegislation, in part because of a dispute over a subsidy planfor aiding homes that rely only on over-the-air broadcasts.

Most expect a subsidy program would be funded with theproceeds of auctioning off the old analog broadcast airwaves.