- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

House lawmakers yesterday said they are committed to a Feb. 17, 2009, deadline for transitioning to digital TV, despite concerns that some analog TV viewers are still in the dark about what it means.

“This date has to stick,” said Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican and ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet. “I want to assure you that we will not allow that transition to slip.”

At a hearing on the status of the digital TV transition, subcommittee members quizzed representatives from the broadcasting, cable, electronic and retail industries on their efforts to inform the country’s estimated 70 million households with analog televisions that they will need to purchase a special converter box or a new television to ensure their screens don’t go black.

“I think careful oversight is going to be very much needed because I have great apprehensions that a fine mess lies before us,” warned Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the full committee.

In addition to higher resolution, digital TV is lauded because it requires less bandwidth, freeing up broadcast spectrum for emergency responders to communicate with each other.

Forty percent of Americans are aware that the U.S. is transitioning to digital TV, according to surveys by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Of those, only about 1 percent to 3 percent know about the February 2009 deadline.

Democrats said the $5 million in federal funds set aside for consumer education in the digital-transition plan passed by the Republican-led Congress last year will not be enough.

But Jim Yager, chief executive officer of Barrington Broadcasting Group LLC of Hoffman Estates, Ill., assured lawmakers that the private sector has plenty of incentive to educate viewers about the transition and is prepared to do so.

“We’re talking about our audience here. We’re talking about our lifeblood,” said Mr. Yager, who testified on behalf of the NAB.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee, pressed Michael Vitelli, a senior vice president with Best Buy Co. Inc., to include labels about the transition on analog televisions. The Richfield, Minn., electronics retailer is a member of the Digital Television Transition Coalition, an organization of businesses and other groups that have a stake in the transition.

“We’re going to ask you to do more from now on,” Mr. Markey told Mr. Vitelli. “We’re going to ask your association to warn all consumers that analog TV sets will not work in two years.”

In its version of last year’s digital television bill, the Senate stripped a provision from the House bill that would have required retailers to display such information.

Some Democrats criticized as inadequate the $1 billion national converter box assistance program, under which the government will grant $40 coupons to analog viewers to purchase digital-to-analog converters, which are scheduled to hit store shelves in January. Republican Reps. Joe L. Barton of Texas and John Shimkus of Illinois said the amount can fund more than 22 million converters and is therefore enough to cover the expected demand for 21.8 million, which they based on estimates by the Federal Communications Commission and broadcasters.

Reps. Edolphus Towns, New York Democrat, and Hilda L. Solis, California Democrat, worried that low-income and minority consumers are disproportionately at risk of being left behind. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat, expressed concern about analog viewers in rural areas.

Rep. Jane Harman, California Democrat, said it would be an injustice to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks to delay the digital transition, which will free up new spectrum for first responders to communicate with each other.

“We should stop at nothing to get this right,” she said.

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