Digital TV Switch Could be Tough

The U.S. faces several challenges as it moves to all-digital television broadcasts by Feb. 17, 2009, including a lack of funding for consumer education, a U.S. lawmaker said Thursday.

The U.S. government has allocated US$5 million to consumer education about the impending change, after which about 70 million analog TV sets in the U.S. will stop working unless they are connected to converter boxes or hooked up to cable or satellite service. By comparison, the U.K., with about a fifth of the population of the U.S., has allocated $600 million toward consumer education during its recently started digital TV (DTV) transition, said Representative Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat.

In addition, a $1.5 billion voucher program to help U.S. residents with analog TV sets buy DTV converter boxes may only cover about 30 million TV sets, and up to 10 percent of external antennas currently in use may not be capable of receiving digital signals, Boucher told members of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) at the trade group's Washington Forum.

Boucher focused mostly on the educational challenges associated with the transition, which has freed up spectrum for public safety agencies and for the recently completed 700MHz auction at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Many people will have trouble hooking up the converter boxes, he said.

"We're still a nation where a lot of people can't program a VCR," he said.

In the U.K., where the DTV transition is being phased in over two years, the government has allocated an additional $600 million to a help program where consumers can pay a small fee for technical assistance, including antenna replacement and converter hookups, Boucher said. "By contrast, I think our program is going to have some gaps," he said.

Some lawmakers may have nightmares of thousands of callers flooding their telephone switchboards when TV sets suddenly stop working on Feb. 17, 2009, Boucher said. "There are very few deeply held liberties in America, but the right to television coverage is one of them," he said.

The U.S. DTV transition may need more money, he said, and he called on CEA to support changes in the DTV transition plan, if the U.S. Congress sees the need.

Bill Crutchfield, CEO of electronics maker Crutchfield New Media, questioned if a large government program was the answer to helping people with DTV transition. He suggested local service groups could provide technical assistance to people who needed help.

"That's kind of the American way of doing it," he said.

Boucher said there's been talk of using volunteers to help people hook up the converter boxes or replace antennas, but he suggested many of those volunteers would need training. "They're going to need some kind of infrastructure behind them," he said.

Circuit City's Chairman and CEO Philip Schoonover also noted that his stores and several competitors will install new equipment for customers, including converter boxes. Boucher applauded those efforts but said that in many rural areas, a Circuit City or other large electronics store can be many miles away.

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