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Lawmakers clash over digital TV subsidy

U.S. lawmakers clashed Thursday over whether the government should aid those American households that will be left in the dark after television broadcasters switch to higher-quality digital signals.
/ Source: Reuters

U.S. lawmakers clashed Thursday over whether the government should aid those American households that will be left in the dark after television broadcasters switch to higher-quality digital signals.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is considering legislation that would require broadcasters to turn off their analog signals and only air digital starting Jan. 1, 2009.

But an estimated 21 million households watch TV solely using an antenna, not subscribing to cable or satellite. And, few Americans own a television set that can receive the new digital signals or a box that converts the signal.

Digital televisions typically cost more than $500 while a box to convert the digital signal back to analog, which would avoid millions of sets becoming obsolete, is expected to cost $50 when produced in mass quantities.

Most Republicans on the committee expressed support for a limited subsidy program to help low-income families while most Democrats urged the plan cover all of those 21 million homes.

Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the committee and a Texas Republican, led crafting the measure but he left out a subsidy program despite supporting one for low-income families.

“I myself would support a limited subsidy,” he said. But Barton noted that giving broadcasters until 2009 to switch off analog and accelerating a mandate that television manufacturers include digital receivers in new sets lessened the need.

“But I am also here to listen ... tell me what you think works,” Barton said.

His Republican colleague from Florida, Rep. Cliff Stearns, doubted the need for any assistance. “I’m not convinced a subsidy is absolutely necessary,” he said. Stearns also raised concerns that a program could be unwieldy to manage.

But Democrats and a few Republicans noted that without some subsidy program, they could be quickly run out of office when millions of television screens go blank on Jan. 1, 2009.

“I’m confident we will have a subsidy otherwise the legislation will be DOA, dead on arrival,” said Rep. Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat. “You do not mess with America’s car or America’s television.”

Democrats, who so far have refused to back the draft legislation, said the subsidy could be funded by the billions of dollars the government is expected to raise by selling the broadcasters’ old analog spectrum to wireless companies.

“There’s more than enough money to make all affected consumers whole who are unfairly blacked out by this policy,” said Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

The Congressional Budget Office has unofficially suggested the sale of the airwaves could raise about $10 billion, but private estimates vary.

“Forcing people to spend extra money for their television set isn’t the way to go,” said Rep. Barbara Cubin, a Wyoming Republican.