Stevens: Bundle Set-Tops with Analog TVs

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Washington -- Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is considering a plan to force TV-set manufacturers to provide digital set-tops to consumers when they purchase analog-TV sets.

Taking questions after a speech here Tuesday, Stevens said he is “toying with the idea that those who manufacture analog sets after a certain date must provide a box with it. I don’t know why these foreign manufacturers shouldn’t shift over to digital, and if they don’t, they should give us a box.”

A spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association was not immediately available for comment.

Analog TVs can’t display digital pictures from broadcasters without set-top boxes or connections to pay TV services. Sympathizing with broadcasters, Stevens has expressed annoyance that millions of analog-TV sets continue to be sold without integrated over-the-air digital tuners. The Federal Communications Commission’s digital-TV-tuner mandate does not take full effect until July 2007.

Legislation turning off analog TV is not expected to pass without digital-set-top subsidies for some or all of the 73 million analog-TV sets that rely exclusively on free, over-the-air broadcasting. The price tag could range between $500 million-$10 billion, depending on box costs and the number of boxes underwritten.

Funding for the subsidy is expected to come from billions of dollars raised in broadcast-spectrum auctions. A private estimate given to Congress recently put the haul at $30 billion.

Some in Congress, including Stevens, have concerns about providing set-top subsidies.

“I’d like to avoid the subsidy and let the buyer have the full value of going to digital and, if they want to buy analog now, [they] ought to transition into the next generation of digital. I’m not sure I’ll win on that, though,” Stevens said.

In his speech, Stevens indicated that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has argued that broadcast-spectrum auctions held within the next few years might not produce the gusher of cash that some want to use to fund set-top boxes.

House draft legislation that emerged late last week does not include set-top subsidies due to disagreements between senior Republicans and Democrats.

House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) wants to limit the subsidy to low-income consumers who represent a subset of the 20 million homes that are broadcast-only. Some House Democrats want to protect as many analog-TV sets as possible, arguing that a means-tested subsidy program would be difficult to administer.

The House bill would terminate analog broadcasting Dec. 31, 2008. Stevens declined to endorse that deadline.

“I don’t think I’m prepared to tell you what date I favor. I favor arranging it so that we can maximize the concept of raising the money that this spectrum should bring to the government,” Stevens said.