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Switch to digital TV called crucial

The transition must be on schedule, lawmakers say, so safety services can use freed-up airwaves.

March 29, 2007|From Reuters

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

U.S. television stations are required to switch to airing only digital broadcasts by Feb. 17, 2009. That will free up analog airwaves, some of which will be set aside for public safety so emergency workers can better communicate with one another -- a significant problem during the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

"We will not let that date slip," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said at a House subcommittee hearing on the status of the digital TV transition.

Democratic Reps. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania and Jane Harman of California echoed his view. "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, of Venice.

The inability of police and fire officials to communicate during the 9/11 attacks was blamed for the deaths of New York firefighters that occurred despite a police warning when the World Trade Center towers began to collapse.

Mary Fetchet, who lost her son in the devastation, told lawmakers she was frustrated by the slow progress.

"Imagine being told that your loved one's death could have been prevented," she said. "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, potentially raising billions of dollars for the government. The FCC has not yet set a date for the auction.

Lawmakers raised concerns about the progress and logistics of the transition.

About 20 million households rely solely on free over-the-air television. If owners of analog sets don't get a converter box, subscribe to satellite or digital cable or replace their TV with a digital television by Feb. 17, 2009, their screens will go dark.

Congress has set aside as much as $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, it is not clear how the converters will be rolled out or how consumers will apply for and redeem the coupons.

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

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