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House GOP open to digital TV subsidy

Republicans in the House are open to a subsidy plan to help Americans who only get broadcast television afford the switch to digital television, a congressional aide said.
/ Source: Reuters

Republicans in the House of Representatives are still open to a subsidy plan to help Americans who only get broadcast television afford the switch to digital television, a congressional aide said Monday.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Barton and the telecommunciations subcommittee chairman Rep. Fred Upton released a draft measure to end existing analog broadcasts and have only digital signals air by Dec. 31, 2008.

House Democrats objected in part because it did not have a program to help housholds that rely solely on over-the-air broadcasts and would have to buy a box to convert the new digital, higher quality signals.

Barton, a Texas Republican, had initially backed completing the switch to digital by the end of 2006 and expressed support for a subsidy program to alleviate fears by broadcasters that millions of Americans would be left in the dark.

Yet, a subsidy program was not included in the draft because the extended switch deadline would give more time to buy a converter box, said a Republican congressional aide, who declined to be identified.

But Republicans would be open to an "appropriately-crafted program," the aide said, but declined to elaborate.

There are about 21 million households that rely on over- the-air television, according to the Government Accountability Office.

"I remain hopeful that we will ultimately achieve a bipartisan consensus on this issue," Barton said in a statement. "This discussion draft and our next hearing will help us take another step toward that goal."

A spokeswoman for the top Democrats on the panel said they were open to "workable, consumer-friendly solutions" to protect all affected consumers.

The committee plans to hold a hearing Thursday with representatives from multiple segments of the industry testifying, and hopes to schedule a committee vote on the bill in the coming weeks.

Current law requires that television broadcasters give up their old analog airwaves and air only digital by the end of 2006, or when 85 percent of the country can see the new signals, whichever comes later.

U.S. communications regulators expect it could take a decade for the transition to be completed under that scenario and they, along with some lawmakers, have been pushing to set a permanent deadline.

Lawmakers are anxious to get broadcasters to air only digital television signals because the government wants to auction most of the old analog airwaves to commercial wireless services, a sale that could reap billions of dollars.

That money could be used to plug the federal deficit as well as fund a subsidy program. Converter boxes could cost between $50 to $200, depending on production.

With a 2008 deadline instead of 2006, the government could raise more money in the auction as well.

"Ultimately, some form of subsidy will be included and the bill will pass because of federal budget needs," said Medley Global Advisors in a research note.

The proposed draft would also accelerate the date by which new, smaller television sets must include equipment to receive digital signals. In addition, the measure would allow cable companies in some cases to convert digital to analog for customers who have older sets.