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DTV under the radar

House panel hears about need for PR, assists

WASHINGTON — The government needs to increase its efforts to inform consumers about the coming digital TV transition and help low-income viewers afford the switch, advocates told a House subcommittee Thursday.

Most at risk of losing out in the transition to DTV are minorities and the elderly, according to testimony and statements given to the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

Broadcasters are moving to meet a federal requirement that they switch from analog transmission to digital, but consumers who do not or cannot buy digital televisions or digital converters for their analog sets will not have the ability to view any programming in the digital era.

While the government has not yet set a hard date by which the transition must be completed, the move is already happening, and analog transmissions will eventually end.

Keeping secret

But the government has done a poor job of informing the public about this transition, as even subcommittee chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) acknowledged.

“Setting aside the debate over hard-date legislation, even the implications of current law compel us to focus significant time and attention on preparing the consumer for the end of the digital transition,” Upton said.

The elderly are particularly in need of preparation, said Lavada E. DeSalles, a board member of the American Assn. of Retired Persons.

“When the transition occurs, millions of TV sets will go dark,” DeSalles said. “Can you imagine the confusion and distress that will result if consumers are unaware that this will happen? AARP recommends that a comprehensive plan to educate the public be implemented at least one year before the transition occurs.”

Manuel Mirabal, founder of the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership and president of the National Puerto Rican Coalition, testified that most Hispanic Americans remain unaware of how the digital transition will affect their ability to receive television programming.

Mirabal noted that a third of the U.S. Hispanic population — the largest ethnic minority in the country — currently rely on over-the-air television reception.

Mirabal and DeSalles stressed that the majority of their respective constituencies will be hard-pressed to afford DTVs or converter technology.

Upton appeared open to governmental help. “We do need to consider some form of a digital-to-analog converter box assistance program,” he said.

David H. Arland, communications and government affairs veep for consumer electronics firm Thomson, testified that the company will make and sell “affordable” DTVs and converters later this year under the RCA brand name.

Arland spoke of 27-inch standard-definition televisions retailing for under $300 and a converter box for under $125 — both considerably less than prevailing prices.

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