Washington—Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) is about to introduce legislation that would require cable operators to provide local TV signals at a reduced cost indefinitely to people who lose over-the-air TV service as a result of the digital transition next February.
Sanders, who sought support for the bill in a Nov. 13 letter circulated to other senators, is worried that hundreds of thousands of homes could lose TV service when traditional analog signals are turned off on Feb. 17, 2009.
"That is why I am introducing legislation that would require cable, satellite, and other paid TV companies to provide a basic broadcast service to those consumers who have lost channels due the DTV transition at a reduced cost, indefinitely," his two-page letter said.
According to Sanders, the U.S. has 16 million homes that rely exclusively on free, over-the-air broadcasting. A Sanders aide said as many as 5% of those homes—800,000—could lose at least one local TV signal after the digital switch due to things such as weaker digital signal strength and local terrain challenges.
"Regardless of one's ability to pay, it is unfair to ask consumers who lose their TV reception to pay for what they previously received for free," Sanders said. "Because the federal government was responsible for mandating this DTV transition, I believe it is the federal government's duty, along with a wide-range of industry partners, to ensure that our constituents are held harmless."
A spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association declined to comment.
The Sanders aide said the bill would establish the criteria for determining who had lost free TV signals and is thus eligible to buy a lifeline service that consisted solely of local TV signals. Money remaining from the federal government's $1.5 billion converter box coupon program might be used to cover a portion of equipment installation costs, the aide added.
The bill would attempt to keep the basic cable price at $10 a month or less, similar to Comcast's recently announced DTV transition promotion that expires after one year.
"We may go lower," the Sanders aide said.
By having the bill require a cheap basic package "indefinitely," Sanders would mean "until the end of time, a long period of time," his aide said.
"There's no point in going and doing the legislation if we're just going to match what Comcast is already doing," the aide said.
Local TV stations would not be able to collect retransmission consent from cable subscribers who signed up for the local signal package, the Sanders aide said.