Digital Move Will Blank up to 80 Million TV Sets

Consumer advocates on Wednesday warned that up to 80 million television sets could go dark after a transition to digital broadcast signals and said the government should help owners get special converter boxes.

About 15 percent of U.S. households rely on over-the-air television signals, and about 39 percent of households have at least one television that is not connected to satellite or cable television service, according to a survey by Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America.

Congress and the Federal Communications Commission are trying to speed the broadcast industry's transition from analog signals to digital ones to free up valuable spectrum. Lawmakers are considering legislation that would set Jan. 1, 2009, as the deadline for finishing the switch.

"The first rule Congress must abide by is do no harm to consumers," said Gene Kimmelman, public policy director for Consumers Union. "We can only support a hard date transition if the costs are not borne by consumers who have done nothing wrong and just want their TVs to work."

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

The Consumer Electronics Association has projected a smaller number of television sets -- 33.6 million -- would be affected by the switch.

"The (consumer groups') survey appears to assume that any TV not connected to cable or satellite is connected to a broadcast antenna," said Michael Petricone, CEA vice president for technology policy. He said millions of sets are used only for video games and movies.

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

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

Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.

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Lisa Minter
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