U.S. local television broadcasters said on Tuesday they would accept a 2009 deadline to switch to airing only higher-quality digital signals, a date being considered by lawmakers.
However, they urged Congress to give consumers the choice of receiving the new
signals as-is or converting them to analog so that they would work on older
television sets -- and to require cable companies to carry extra channels
"Broadcasters accept that Congress will implement a 2009 hard date for the end
of analog broadcasts, and we're ready," Edward Fritts, president and chief
executive of the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents
hundreds of local stations, told the Senate Commerce Committee.
The Senate and U.S. House of Representatives are considering setting late 2008
or early 2009 as the date for completing the transition to digital television
Current law requires local television stations to give up their analog airwaves
only when 85 percent of the country can receive the new digital signals or on
Dec. 31, 2006, whichever comes later.
Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican and the committee chairman, told
reporters after a hearing that the deadline for completing the digital
switch-over should be set sometime in 2009.
One of the biggest concerns confronting lawmakers as they grapple with setting
a final deadline is that most Americans do not have new sets or converter boxes
capable of receiving the digital signals. A subsidy program is one possibility
"If you want an uproar from the people of this country, you have their
televisions turned off," cautioned Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican.
Stevens said he also wanted to move up the date when all televisions sold in
the United States would have to be able to receive digital signals. The Federal
Communications Commission has set a July 1, 2007 date for most sets to be
capable and is already considering moving that up.
The demands for cable companies to carry extra digital channels and analog
signals drew a rebuke from Kyle McSlarrow, president and chief executive of the
National Cable & Telecommunications Association, who said the goal was instead
to free up the airwaves for public safety organizations.
"Nothing the broadcasters have proposed has the slightest bearing on how you
can best ensure the return of the spectrum and how you can do so with a minimum
of inconvenience to consumers," McSlarrow told the Senate committee.
The government wants to sell the old airwaves used by broadcasters to wireless
companies and provide some of them for public safety communications. The sale
could also reap billions of dollars and potentially fill a budget gap.
Some senators expressed impatience at the prospect of waiting several more
years, saying the lack of spectrum would hinder emergency workers in the event
of an attack.
"The bombings last week in London reinforce the immediate need for this
spectrum," said committee member Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona.