Coming Soon: $359 DTV and Tuner

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Washington— A critical element in the plan to end analog broadcast TV is providing millions of American consumers with affordable access to free over-the-air digital TV signals.

That issue is starting to be addressed.

One TV-set manufacturer has begun shipping the first integrated DTV set that appears to fit within the budget of middle-class America.

That unit is a 27-inch set sold under the RCA brand controlled by TTE Technology Inc. in the People’s Republic of China.

A TTE spokesman said the flat-screen sets, to be available in Wal-Mart Stores in a matter of weeks, would sell for $359 and allow consumers to attach a low-cost antenna to receive local DTV signals without a cable or satellite connection.

But the RCA set will not display an HDTV image: the picture displayed will be DVD-quality.

Congress is likely to set a date in 2008 or 2009 for ending the DTV transition. When the cutoff arrives, millions of analog sets that have not been replaced with integrated digital sets will not work without a digital-to-analog converter.

The National Association of Broadcasters reports the U.S. has 21 million homes that rely exclusively on free TV, and those homes today have 45 million analog sets. But the analog equipment legacy problem could be much worse, because cable and satellite homes have 28 million analog sets not connected to a pay-TV service.

In any DTV legislation, Congress is likely to include set-top subsidies. The price tag could range from about $500 million to as high as several billions dollars.

The RCA unit is hitting the market late in the transition. Because set manufactures refused to include off-air tuners in DTV sets as a routine feature, the Federal Communications Commission forced their inclusion in all but the smallest DTV sets by July 2007.

Richard Dinsmore, TTE’s director of marketing, said DTV turners had not been included “because the consumer demand had not been there.” TTE, he added, is eager to see how the new RCA unit sells.

“We are doing everything we can to comply with the mandate and move the digital transition forward,” he said.

NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton praised the arrival of the RCA unit under $400. “It may have taken awhile, but it’s good news to hear that set makers are now beginning to offer DTV sets at a price point affordable to most Americans,” Wharton said.

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