Adelstein Fears Uproar Over Analog Cutoff

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Consumers left without television service due to a poorly planned digital-TV transition would react harshly, Federal Communications Commission member Jonathan Adelstein said Wednesday.

“I think if there is a cutoff of analog service, we’re going to have an amazing uproar from the public if there is not really a lot of effort made to prepare the public and give them the tools they need to be able to receive television signals in their homes,” Adelstein told reporters at FCC headquarters.

The FCC has a plan, currently on hold, that calls for ending the digital-TV transition Dec. 31, 2008. House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) favors Dec. 31, 2006, and he is close to introducing a bill that may include that date.

But Democrat Adelstein shares the view with some on Capitol Hill that Congress and the FCC need to ensure that 73 million analog-TV sets (including 45 million in homes that do not subscribe to cable and satellite) do not go dark once analog-TV service is turned off.

Barton is considering a plan that would earmark spectrum-auction revenue to subsidize set-tops that would convert digital signals to analog and provide continued life to analog TVs not tethered to a pay service.

The Government Accountability Office, in a report last week, said the cost of the subsidy program would range between $460 million-$10.6 billion, depending on box prices and the number of TV sets eligible for funding. The GAO estimates did not include the cost of administering the program.

LG Electronics USA Inc. told a House panel last week that a digital-to-analog converter would cost under $100 by the end of 2006 and $50-$70 by the end of 2008. But those figures depended on “sales volumes in the tens of millions of units.”

“We definitely have to look at the consumer impact of a hard date,” Adelstein added. “That’s one of the reasons I think we have to let Congress try to work its will on this before we jump in there.”

He noted that the FCC does not have authority to fund and operate a set-top-subsidy program to accompany a decision to end analog TV on a specific date.

“Congress is clearly in the midst of considering this, and they have tools at their disposal that we don’t have to minimize the impact on consumers,” he said.

FCC chairman Michael Powell, who is leaving in March, said he did not expect to complete work on the digital-TV plan before he left.

On other topics, Adelstein said he was concerned about reports that a telephone company had used its broadband network to block voice-over-Internet-protocol calls from Vonage Holdings Corp.

“The question is whether or not voluntary measures are sufficient or whether or not we need to step in and deal with this to maintain the traditionally open nature of the Internet,” he added.

Adelstein said he had not seen a staff recommendation on whether to lift the July 2006 ban on cable-operator deployment of new set-top boxes that did not include CableCARDs for conditional access.

“We have to move fast. We are under a lot of pressure to get this done because manufacturing decisions take some lead time, and I think it’s fair to both the consumer-electronics industry and the cable industry that we make a decision as soon as possible,” he added.

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