Helping Americans understand their choices

My colleagues on the Energy and Commerce Committee have often heard me comment that the end of the traditional analog TV signal may well be the end of many congressional careers. The American people have a love affair with their televisions with which we dare not interfere too much.

The recently passed budget-reconciliation bill included a digital television (DTV) provision. Though I strongly opposed the overall reconciliation bill, I supported the DTV title.

I did so because it contained three important provisions. First is a program to assist people who rely on free over-the-air television in purchasing a set-top box that will receive a digital signal and convert it to analog, thus allowing their TVs to continue to work. Second is the creation of a public-safety trust fund that will assist state and local first responders in purchasing interoperable radio equipment. And third is setting a hard date for the end of analog TV — Feb. 17, 2009.

TV broadcasters use frequencies that are often called “beachfront” property because signals on these frequencies are so clear and strong. By moving from analog to digital broadcasts, our TV stations can use the radio spectrum more efficiently and free up some of these “beachfront” frequencies for other purposes.

In the 1997 budget act, Congress required the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to set aside an additional 24 megahertz of those frequencies for public safety. The rest of the frequencies will be auctioned off for use by the private sector to provide advanced wireless services.

During this transition, I am most concerned about the people who do not subscribe to cable or satellite but instead rely on free over-the-air signals. This is roughly 15-20 percent of the population and, demographically speaking, they tend to be senior citizens, minorities and low-income. These consumers may have purchased a TV in the past year and will not be happy to learn that it no longer functions come Feb. 17, 2009, because their TV lacks a digital tuner. Though only 9 percent of the people in the New York media market rely on free over-the-air signals, that still translates into 2 million people.

I am also concerned about the people who do subscribe to cable or satellite because they could well become confused about how they will be affected — which is to say they will not be, at least immediately.

The need to free up the spectrum became crystal clear on Sept. 11. The sad fact is New York’s Finest couldn’t directly warn New York’s Bravest that the second tower was about to collapse. We have a very scarce resource in useable radio frequencies, and by moving to a digital television format we will free up some very valuable spectrum.

Our police departments need equipment that allows them to communicate with not only with our fire departments but with state and federal officials as well. These systems need more frequencies than are currently available, but they will be when the broadcasters vacate them.

Finally, the hard date will provide focus for broadcasters, consumers and manufacturers to work together to make this transition as painless as possible. It will also enable the FCC to auction additional spectrum licenses to fund the set-top-box program and public-safety trust fund.

But the key to this transition’s being successful is consumer understanding and acceptance. We are far from that right now.

I have heard many stories of people going to purchase a new TV and being utterly baffled by the options and equipment. HDTV, HDTV-ready or HDTV monitor, plug and play or digital cable ready, SDTV, EDTV and set-top box are all new terms that consumers must learn to make an informed choice.

Understanding these differences is not easy or intuitive. For example, not all HDTVs have a digital tuner inside. Thus, a person can watch a DVD in digital splendor but won’t be able to see a digitally broadcast show without a set-top box that has a digital tuner in it.

The FCC has implemented a requirement that by the middle of 2007 all TVs larger than 13 inches must have a digital tuner in them, but that still means millions of sets could be sold that will require additional equipment to function after the analog signals are turned off.

Therefore, I am introducing legislation that will create a national education campaign. It will require clear labeling for HDTVs and public-service announcements to be broadcast during prime time.

I am confident that the American people will benefit from the digital conversion. Not only will they enjoy advanced television services but they will be able to sleep better knowing their local police and fire departments can communicate seamlessly. In the meantime, if we help Americans understand their choices, this important transition will be smooth and beneficial to all.

Engel is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.