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Industries Debate Analog TV Cutoff Date

The House Telecommunications Subcommittee fielded testimony from three directly involved industries on the need to impose a fixed cutoff date for the return of analog television spectrum.

Among those arguing in favor of the cutoff deadline was CEA’s president/CEO Gary Shapiro, who told Subcommittee members that imposing a fixed date for the return of analog television spectrum would “provide regulatory certainty to all industries involved in the analog to digital television (DTV) transition.”

“A fixed cutoff date would be a critical step in the right direction, but it won’t mean all the transition work is done,” Shapiro said. “All industries must kick it up a notch to reach the finish line.”

“For broadcasters, that means more aggressively promoting their digital broadcast channels, both during analog broadcasts and in TV program listings,” he continued. “In addition, broadcast stations must fully construct their facilities to reach all the viewers of their analog signal with a digital signal.”

Not surprisingly, Jim Yager, Barrington Broadcasting’s CEO, speaking on behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), cautioned against establishing a cutoff date that would disenfranchise millions of U.S. homes.

“It is premature to discuss the end of the transition without first resolving a number of policy impediments that could block consumers from reaping the full benefits of DTV,” he said.

Yager pointed the role that cable operators will take on in carrying digital broadcast programming to most U.S. households.

“Cable operators have known for years of the impending DTV transition, but are now seeking to convert digital high-definition signals to analog formats at the head end of their systems,” Yager said. “Down-conversion at the head end would mean that consumers who invest in HDTV sets would find themselves receiving an identical picture as their neighbors’ analog-only TVs.”

“The question must be asked: If the end result is turning digital signals back into analog, why did we undertake this transition in the first place?” Yager asked.

Shapiro also called upon cable operators to “support digital cable ready (DCR) integrated television sets with adequate promotion and supplies of CableCARDS provided at a fair price in order to provide a seamless viewing experience for cable customers to access HDTV and DTV programming.

“Additionally, for consumers to enjoy a truly open and competitive market for cable equipment, the cable industry must rely on the same security interface as their consumer electronics manufacturer counterparts,” Shapiro said. “Anything else would be anti-innovation and anti-consumer.”

Michael Willner, InSight’s CEO, who testified on behalf of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), backed a hard date cutoff date, saying cable would accept any date Congress wants to determine.

“I do want you to know that we are ready, willing and able to comply with whatever date you choose,” Willner said. “You set the date, we will be there.”

Willner defended the cable industry against Yager’s suggestion that broadcast digital signals could be downconverted by cable operators, saying that cable subscribers with digital TVs will continue enjoying the benefits of digital television, as they do today.

On the need for possible government subsidies for low-income homes without access to cable or satellite TV services, Yager pointed out that 21 million homes (according to Government Accounting Office studies) would lose television access if the analog cutoff were imposed today.

Further, he stated that “it is unconscionable that every year another 30 million analog-only sets are sold to unsuspecting consumers … without any warning that the product may soon be obsolete,” Yager said. “Under the current tuner phase-in schedule, analog-only sets will continue to be sold until July of 2007.”

Jong Kim, LG Electronics’ VP, told the subcommittee that the cost of set-top converter boxes would become affordable if Congress adopts a hard date, to help establish a market for converters.

Kim estimated the cost of a digital-to-analog converter will be under $100 by the end of 2006 and $50 to $70 by the end of 2008, assuming sales volumes in the tens of millions of units.