McCain’s US Bill seeks $1Bn for Digital TV

The world over there is a general move towards replacing analogue television with digital. US Senate Commerce Committee chairman, John McCain has now raised the stakes.. His proposed bill calls for analogue switch off by 2009 but offers financial aid. Current law requires broadcasters either to give up their current airwaves by 2007, or when 85 percent of the nation can receive the new digital signals – whichever comes later. Many US TV stations already broadcast both digital and analogue signals, but few Americans own digital television sets, which are currently a lot more expensive than their more traditional counterparts.

McCain proposes a bill that that would require broadcasters to switch off analogue signals by 2009 and would subsidise the cost of consumers upgrading their equipment to digital. Currently there are about 70 million analogue sets in the US. Even though the Federal Communications Commission has mandated that by July 2007 all new television sets with screens 13 inches or larger must be able to receive digital signals, the fear is that digital TV will not be universal by then.  This is because, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, Americans replace their sets only every eight to 10 years – messing up the math for the lawmakers.

McCain argues that it will take $1 billion to make the shift and this magic sum will be garnered through a rather circuitous route. When the government) gets their hands on the airwaves that broadcasters are now using, they will probably auction it for commercial wireless services, and this could potentially earn billions of dollars, and Senator McCain’s $1 billion would come from the auction proceeds.

Some of this $1 billion could also be used as a benevolent fund to enable people who do not have a digital television set to install a pay television service that would either offer them the new signals or a converted signal they could see. This will allow millions of consumers to continue watching television once broadcasters begin airing only in digital.  Understandably though, those same broadcasters are concerned about their signals being switched back into analogue after they have spent millions of dollars upgrading their facilities to offer digital.

McCain’s draft legislation gives priority to those households that rely solely on over-the-air television, and in particular lower-income homes. The legislation is scheduled to be considered by the committee on Wednesday, but it is hard to anticipate any meaningful progress since Congress is trying to adjourn by early October and the U.S. House of Representatives has not acted as yet.

If the Bill is passed analogue -only television sets made after September 2005 will be obliged to include a warning label stating that without additional equipment, it would not work after 2008.

So far the UK government has rejected any call for it to contribute to the public’s cost of making the change to digital TV. McCain’s bill will give further weight to those who feel they should.