Lawmakers back keeping 2009 digital TV date

WASHINGTON Wed Mar 28, 2007 5:19pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The switch to digital television from analog should not be delayed because it is critical that emergency services have access to freed-up airwaves to communicate, U.S. lawmakers said on Wednesday.

"We will not let that date slip," said Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, at a House subcommittee hearing on the status of the digital TV transition.

U.S. television stations are required to switch to airing only digital broadcasts by February 17, 2009, and that will free up 108 megahertz of analog airwaves.

Out of that chunk, 24 MHz is being set aside for public safety so that emergency workers can better communicate with each other, a significant problem during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Democratic Reps. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania and Jane Harman from California echoed the sentiments about keeping the date.

"We cannot violate a sacred trust to those that died on 9/11. I will do whatever I can do not to let this deadline slip," said Harman.

Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan, also said he supported setting a hard date to "finally give an additional 24 Mhz of spectrum to public safety agencies to improve first responder communications."

The inability of police and fire officials to communicate during the September 11, 2001, attacks was blamed for the deaths of New York City firefighters despite a police warning when the World Trade Center towers began to collapse.

The 9/11 commission, which investigated the attacks, recommended "interoperability" of the communications systems of urban emergency services.

Mary Fetchet, who lost her son in the 9/11 attacks, told lawmakers she was frustrated by the slow progress.

"Imagine being told that your loved ones' death could have been prevented," she said at the House telecommunications and Internet subcommittee hearing. "It's inexcusable that we haven't gotten our rescue people the tools to do their job."

The rest of the analog airwaves are slated to be auctioned off for commercial services by the Federal Communications Commission, a sale that could raise billions of dollars for the government. The FCC has not yet set a date for the auction.

LAWMAKERS QUESTION TV INDUSTRY ABOUT TRANSITION

Lawmakers raised concerns over the progress and logistics of the transition -- a move that will affect tens of millions.

An estimated 20 million households now rely solely on free over-the-air television. If owners of analog televisions do not get an analog-digital converter box, subscribe to satellite or digital cable, or replace their TV with a digital television by February 17, 2009, their screens will go dark.

Ed Markey, the chair of the subcommittee, questioned Best Buy Co. Inc.'s vice president Michael Vitelli on whether the retailer's sales staff were warning consumers about the perils of buying an analog TV today.

"You should warn consumers that their analog set will not work in two years," Markey said.

Markey asked whether the digital-analog converter boxes, which Congress has agreed to partially subsidize, would be available in every Best Buy store. Vitelli was not able to say that every store would sell a converter box.

Congress has set aside up to $1.5 billion for discount coupons to be used to buy digital converter boxes. All households with analog televisions are eligible for the $40 discount coupons to buy the boxes. However, what is not clear at this point is how the roll-out of the boxes will work along with the application, distribution and redemption of discount coupons.

At this point, industry sources are estimating that the price of the boxes could be about $60.

"I suspect few consumers will know they will have to purchase new equipment to keep their analog sets going," said Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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