US Digital TV Conversion: Politicos in Subsidy Slugfest

31 May 2005

The US House of Representatives last week divided along partisan lines over the issue of subsidizing the cost of digital TV converter boxes to Joe Public.

All was sweetness and light, however, regarding plans for the timing of the great switchover from analog to digital TV. A Republican-drafted bill setting the date as December 31 2008 was supported by both parties.

But the political split became evident when it came to the cost to consumers of converting from the old technology to the new.

A set-top box will retail at around $50 (€39.78; £27.43), a cost, Republicans say, consumers should meet out of their own pockets - except in the case of households that have no cable or satellite services and earn less than $30,000 yearly.

Representative Joe Barton, Republican chairman of the House Commerce Committee was in magnanimous mode: "I myself could support a limited subsidy for low-income households," he said.

Most Democrats, however, believe that all box-buyers - even the most affluent - should receive a subsidy, not least because the US government stands to make up to $30 billion after the switchover by auctioning the analog spectrum to wireless carriers.

Cable operators are less than euphoric about another of the bill's provisions: one that would compel them to carry all broadcasters' digital channels as of January 2009 . At present they must carry only the analog channels of the network affiliates and other local stations.

Such a requirement, complains the head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Kyle McSlarrow, would "impose an untenable burden" on cable providers with limited capacity. He raises the specter that some cable providers might transmit digital channels only, leaving most consumers with analog TVs in the dark.

Instead, McSlarrow proposes that cable companies carry either a broadcaster's analog or digital channel. For popular channels, both analog and digital stations would be transmitted. For others, only the analog channel would be offered.

Data sourced from USA Today Online; additional content by WARC staff