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Congress works to ease pain of analog TV's death
by Charles Pope, Seattle P-I
Congress has put a price on keeping your old analog TV running in the digital age -- up to $3 billion.
And, as always thinking of your best interests, Congress will help you foot the bill.
In a little-noticed decision that carries consequences for tens of millions of Americans, the House and Senate declared that the analog signals that have brought millions of TVs to life since the 1940s will go dark in 2009. (The House would pull the plug Dec. 31, 2008, while the Senate would end analog service April 7, 2009, right after the NCAA basketball tournament.)
To ease the transition and to make sure that millions of potential voters aren't cut off, the Senate has authorized up to $3 billion in tax dollars to help people buy converters to keep their old analog TVs working. The House is offering $990 million.
Even fiscal conservatives who worry about federal spending support subsidizing the conversion to digital TV. The reason is twofold. First, TV is seen as an essential public service and any improvement is viewed as a public good.
Second, the subsidy is "free money" because it will come from proceeds from the sale of the analog spectrum rather than taking money from other programs. Analysts say the sale will generate between $10 billion and $30 billion.
The estimated 73 million TVs that work the old-fashioned way -- by getting an analog signal over the air -- are what's vulnerable. You also would need to convert if you get basic, or non-digital, cable and your set isn't otherwise equipped for digital. People who use digital cable or satellite don't have to worry. Providers will convert the signal for you. Another option would be to buy a new digital TV set.
Although over-the-air households are a minority, the government estimates that 21 million households still get TV this way. The elderly and poor make up many of these households. In Seattle, an estimated 30 percent of all households get their television signals over the air.
Because televisions equipped to get digital signals are relatively new, only an estimated 5 percent of U.S. households have the technology to receive digital broadcasts now. (Rule of thumb -- if your TV is more than a few years old and didn't cost a fortune, it is analog.)
That will change as more such televisions become available.
As of July 1, all televisions with screens 36 inches or larger were required to have tuners allowing digital reception. Fifty percent of TVs with screens 25-35 inches were required to have digital tuners.
By July 2007, all new TVs with screens larger than 13 inches must be digital-ready.
But the bottom line is, you can still buy a television that accepts only an analog signal, which has led some to push for labels to alert consumers that the TV they buy today may not work in 2009 without a converter.
Republicans and Democrats agree that converting to digital is a necessary step and say setting a hard date for conversion is the only way to ensure an orderly switch to superior technology.
"Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009, will be the day America goes all digital ... and a great technical revolution that has been in the making for years will finally be complete," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who pushed the proposal in the House.
After that, TV stations will broadcast only digital signals, which supporters say are a more efficient and dynamic way to feed programming to TVs. It will allow for better picture quality and surround sound, they say. It will also allow more programming to be squeezed into the electromagnetic spectrum that carries pictures and sound to your set.
But for all the benefits, the switch to digital will render most TVs obsolete because the vast majority are designed to work only with analog signals. Unless they are fitted with a converter box or the signal is changed some other way, millions of analog TVs will become instant doorstops.
While the Senate proposal offers no details beyond a dollar amount, the House calls for the government to issue $40 coupons to anyone who wants to buy a converter box. The House also requires a $10 co-pay on a box that is expected to cost between $40 and $60.
Critics say because the House approach sets aside only $990 million, demand will outstrip supply, leaving low-income people stranded. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., is one of the Democrats pushing for more money. The reason House Republicans aren't more generous, he says, is that putting more of the proceeds into cutting the deficit makes it easier for them to justify a planned tax cut.
"This is a tremendous opportunity for technical advancement," Inslee says of the digital conversion. "We are doing everything possible to see that everybody who needs a (converter) box can get one. But my friends across the aisle would rather use the money for tax breaks for the richest Americans."
Under the House proposal, a voucher would be provided to anybody wanting one, regardless of income, on a first-come basis until the money runs out.
Democrats say that would penalize the poor who would be less likely to get in line early enough to qualify.
"The Republican plan is misdirected," Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said. "Homes most reliant on over-the-air broadcasts may not get coupons while vacation homes will. There is no guarantee that those who need help most will be covered."
Lawmakers and industry lobbyists predict that members of Congress who must reconcile the differing bills are likely to embrace the Senate's higher subsidy. Lawmakers hope to reach agreement before Congress adjourns for the year in December.
Economists predict the switch will also spur an economic boon because new uses could be found for the analog wavelengths no longer needed for TV.
It would also raise a lot of money. Economists and industry analysts say selling the analog bandwidth will bring at least $10 billion and possibly $30 billion or more to the government. That money would be used to offset the nation's record deficit and to subsidize the purchase of set-top converters that analog TVs need to work with a digital signal.
Both bills also demand that part of the newly available analog spectrum be dedicated to law enforcement and other first responders. This provision is universally popular and is designed to address a nagging problem exposed during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina in which responders could not communicate with each other because there was not enough bandwidth to let them use a common channel.
YOU ARE AFFECTED
IF your television is not equipped for digital reception (that's most TVs these days) AND you get your TV signal over the air (roughly 30 percent of Seattleites do) OR you have basic, or non-digital, cable.article originally published at Seattle P-I.