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Proposed Digital TV Deadline Is Criticized

Legislation: Lawmakers say a plan that would make analog sets obsolete probably won't make it into final bill.

September 26, 2002|EDMUND SANDERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A controversial proposal to jump-start digital television by making most existing TVs obsolete by 2007 was panned Wednesday by lawmakers and industry officials, strongly suggesting that the idea will not make it into the final bill.

Draft legislation, circulated last week by the staff of Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), recommended that the government order TV broadcasters to stop sending analog signals, the current norm, and shift to digital TV transmissions by Dec. 31, 2006. If adopted, millions of Americans would have to buy new TVs or expensive equipment to receive the digital signals, which won't work on analog sets.

"The end of analog signals in 2006 would also be the end of most of our political careers," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), adding that consumer outrage over such a plan would be immense.

Gene Kimmelman, senior director of Consumers Union, said, "Such a requirement would place the digital changeover squarely on the backs of consumers."

Even Tauzin, who is chairman of the House Commerce Committee, and the ranking Democrat, Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, expressed reservations about setting a firm conversion deadline. Current law sets 2006 as a target date for broadcasters to switch to digital, but it permits a delay if fewer than 85% of homes have digital sets.

Tauzin said Americans would not be required to buy new TVs until broadcasters began offering more compelling digital programming, such as high-definition TV or interactive features. "If all they get is the same old TV, consumers are going to be asking, 'Why did you make me buy this new box?' " Tauzin said.

However, lawmakers said they would continue to push various industries to accelerate the rollout of digital TV, largely because the government wants to reclaim billions of dollars' worth of analog spectrum. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) said the spectrum is urgently needed to improve wireless communications for emergency workers.

Other provisions of the draft bill received broader support, including a provision that would require cable TV companies to adopt nationwide technical standards. That would clear the way for the sale of digital TVs that do not need set-top boxes, and of set-top boxes that could be used on any cable system in the country, eliminating the need for consumers to rent or buy boxes each time they move.

A formal bill is not expected to be introduced for several months.

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