Democrats: DTV plan has flaws


WASHINGTON -- Democrats aren't wasting any time in the telecommunications policy arena as they criticized the Bush administration's proposal to supply digital converter boxes to Americans who depend on analog signals to receive their television programs.

In a letter mailed Thursday to John Kneuer, acting administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and other Commerce Committee Democrats called the congressionally mandated program inadequate.

They said:

  The plan to limit the converter-box program solely to over-the-air households is too restrictive;

  The agency should ensure that the boxes maintain at least the same picture quality and stereo sound consumers obtain today;

  There should be a guarantee that the digital converter boxes have the capability to be updated, modified or repaired; and

  The NTIA should write a more robust public relations plan so people will know what to do before their TV sets go dark.

"Failure to devise a consumer-friendly converter-box program, or to inform consumers properly of its existence, could significantly jeopardize the public's acceptance of the transition and derail the firm deadline," the Democrats wrote. "We believe NTIA's foremost goal in this proceeding should be to safeguard the interests of all Americans with analog television sets in their homes so that they may continue to receive free over-the-air television service after Feb. 17, 2009."

The program was approved by Congress as part of budget-reducing legislation. Under the legislation, broadcasters will have to end their analog broadcast, switching to digital television. DTV gives broadcasters the ability to air one or two high-definition TV channels or several standard-definition channels. HDTV gives viewers a movie-quality picture and CD-quality sound.

To prevent families from being cut off from their TVs, Congress has included a maximum of $1.5 billion for set-top boxes or other means to receive digital signals. Each family in the program would be eligible for as much as $80 for the conversion.

The NTIA has been drafting a program that would allow Americans to get coupons to purchase the digital-to-analog converter boxes.

Dingell is the Commerce Committee's senior Democrat and likely will take over the committee next year when the Democrats regain the majority in Congress.