Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) has "grave concerns" about an informal plan by the Federal Communications Commission to expedite the transition to digital TV and free spectrum for wireless-phone and public-safety users.
In a letter Thursday to FCC chairman Michael Powell, Engel explained that the plan would require millions of broadcast-only households to acquire digital-TV sets or set-top boxes in order to continue receiving service. The current cost to do that was prohibitive, he added.
"The 15 million television households in this country that rely exclusively on [over-the-air] reception for their television signals are disproportionately elderly, lower-income and minority households," Engel wrote. "People who cannot afford cable- or satellite-TV services are certainly not in a position to spend $1,000 on a new TV or $300-$500 on the set top box that is required to receive digital signals and covert them to analog."
Powell's plan, crafted with staff in the Media Bureau, would shut off analog broadcasting in markets where cable and satellite combined provided digital-TV signals in analog format to 85% or more TV households.
Off-air-only viewers would need new digital equipment to ensure further use of their analog sets.
The city of Berlin, Germany, completed the transition last August by giving away or subsidizing boxes for off-air viewers that were the poor or needy. The Powell plan borrowed heavily from the Berlin model, except that Congress would need to figure out how to preserve broadcasting for off-air-only consumers.