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Coalition Calls For STB Subsidies

A group of special interest groups from urban and rural communities, called the Coalition For A Smart Digital Television Transition, is calling on federal legislators to protect vulnerable consumers from losing free television service when the transition from analog to digital broadcasting is completed.

Representatives from the coalition, including Manuel Mirabal, founder and co-chairman of the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership, and Larry Mitchell, American Corn Growers Association’s CEO, contacted TWICE to amplify their call to slow down the transition process and/or ensure consumers receive subsidies for set-top digital-to-analog converter boxes to continue receiving free-TV after analog broadcasting ceases.

The coalition is urging the House to include the following items as it marks up DTV legislation.

  • Provide compensation for low and fixed-income Americans to purchase the set-top converter boxes that will be needed to ensure that nearly 73 million television sets do not become obsolete overnight.
  • Authorize multicast must-carry, enabling free, over-the-air local television stations to deliver local, ethnic and other quality programming to viewers across the country.
  • Commit funding to pay for outreach and consumer education.

Mitchell, whose group is also part of the Alliance for Real Television, which represents approximately 700,000 members, including four out of the five major farming associations, is pushing for the rights of rural constituents who frequently don’t have access to cable and rely on over-the-air analog signals to view local news, weather and community interest programming that is not always available from home satellite systems.

“We would first like to see if we can get the analog cutoff date set back a little from the original late 2006 schedule,” said Mitchell, adding that 2009 or 2010 would be a more realistic deadline. “We would like to work toward determining what we have and how we can best distribute a subsidy [for set-top, digital-to-analog converter boxes].”

Mitchell said his group would like the set-top box subsidy to be “as widespread as possible. If at all possible, I think we should have at least one converter for each household, if not one for each television that is affected.”

He said that at first he thought the broad form of the request would be too much “until I started talking with some conservative Republicans on the Hill, who see this as a takings issue. They feel that everyone should be held harmless on this, and that there would be enough money from the sale of the spectrum to do it.”

Mitchell said the consumer electronics industry and others must step up efforts to educate the public about the approaching digital transition, including adding warning labels to any analog TV sold today. The labels would clearly indicate that the set may become unable to receive over-the-air signals in a very short time, unless you have a cable or satellite service, he said.

In addition to asking for set-top box subsidies, Mirabal is urging Capitol Hill to clearly spell out requirements for multicast must-carry obligations. This element in a final bill will ensure that local stations can spread infrastructure costs for local news and other important information across multiple channels, he said.

Multicast must-carry will bring innovative local programming from diverse sources to more viewers and will preserve the viability of free, over-the-air television as a viable competitor to cable, he said. He added that broadcasters should be given the freedom to multicast, because it will create jobs while allowing broadcasters to better address the needs of the viewing public.

The coalition believes such requirements will keep downward pressure on cable rates and protect against the migration of these programming services to purely pay cable platforms.

Mirabal also called upon the consumer electronics industry to better warn the buying public — particularly minorities who are among the biggest buyers of analog sets — about the changes that are approaching.