Consumer Groups Want Free DTV Boxes

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Consumer groups Wednesday called on Congress to pony up the $4 billion that might be needed to keep millions of analog-TV sets working once TV stations go to all-digital transmission in a few years.

Congress is considering a plan to shut down analog TV Dec. 31, 2008. But the consumer groups claimed that 80 million analog TVs would be rendered useless the next day without digital-to-analog converter boxes or connections to cable or satellite service.

Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America said Congress should pay to provide free boxes for all 80 million sets. At $50 a pop, the price tag would be $4 billion. Some in Congress want to use proceeds from analog-TV-spectrum auctions to fund the boxes.

"Consumers will already have to bear the inconvenience of acquiring new equipment to keep their otherwise perfectly good TVs working," said Gene Kimmelman, public-policy director for Consumers Union.

"They shouldn't also have to fork over $50 per set,” he added. “Since Congress is expected to raise more than $10 billion from the spectrum auction, why shouldn't that money first be used to help consumers with the cost of keeping their TVs working? The first rule Congress must abide by is: Do no harm to consumers."

The two groups issued a report showing that 42 million households (39% of all TV-viewing households) have 80 million analog-TV sets that rely exclusively on free, over-the-air broadcasting.

The report found that the 16 million households that do not subscribe to cable or satellite have 35 million analog-TV sets, while cable and satellite homes combined have 45 million TV sets not connected to either pay service.

House legislation has stalled over the scope of the set-top subsidy. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has a bill that would provide $468 million to fund boxes for 9.3 million households that met certain low-income criteria.

McCain opted for less than the universal coverage favored by the consumer groups. Some observers think lawmakers don’t want to be seen subsidizing set-tops for millionaires who don’t subscribe to cable or satellite while making tough budget cuts.

“We're pleased that the Consumers Union/Consumer Federation of America survey reinforces the findings of both the NAB [National Association of Broadcasters] and the GAO [Government Accountability Office].” NAB CEO Eddie Fritts said in a prepared statement.

“We expect Congress to pass a DTV bill this year with a hard date for turning off analog television with minimal consumer disruption,” he added. “The NAB's priority continues to be the prevention of cable companies from blocking consumer access to local TV programming.”

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