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FCC Tuning In DTV

WASHINGTON -- UPDATED: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) told TV makers today they must comply with a July 1 mandate to carry digital tuners in half of their most popular models.

In addition to rejecting the Consumer Electronics Association's (CEA) petition to stall the mandate, the commissioners also accelerated the digital tuner rollout by setting a July 1, 2007, deadline for all televisions, VCRs and DVD players to carry tuners.

"Congress' decision to mandate the digital television transition requires the Commission to take an unusually direct role in overseeing the manufacturing and sale of television receivers," Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said.

The FCC vote comes just days after an apparent agreement between the U.S. House and Senate to have legislation on President Bush's desk by the end of the year to clear current broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alas.) said his bill will set a hard DTV deadline. The House is already holding hearings targeting the same purpose. Congress hopes to auction the vacated analog spectrum for as much as $30 billion to wireless providers.

"Having embarked on this important transition which will deliver high-value broadcasting to consumers, enable exciting new broadband applications to be developed and provide more spectrum for public safety uses we cannot take any steps backward," Abernathy said. "Rather, we need to push the transition to conclusion as expeditiously as possible."

The FCC rules mandate that all sets over 36 inches and half of all 24-to-34 inch televisions carry onboard digital tuners by July 1. By March 1 of next year, all mid-sized televisions must have digital tuners.

In rejecting the CEA's petition to delay the 50 per cent compliance deadline for mid-sized sets, the FCC said TV makers' request would delay the wider dissemination of DTV tuners.

"Today's order makes clear that this Commission is committed to moving the digital transition forward," Commissioner Michael Copps said. "Each time a consumer purchases a set with a digital tuner, we move one step closer towards accomplishing the transition.

With tuners adding approximately $100 to the cost of a television set and talk of a hard deadline remaining only that, television manufacturers fear they will be stuck with warehouses overflowing with unwanted televisions.

The hard deadline for the DTV transition, however, received a major boost earlier this week when Stevens told the Federal Communications Bar Association he supports legislation similar to a House proposal to set a Jan. 1, 2009, date certain for analog televisions to go dark.

Under current law, broadcasters are required to turn over their analog spectrum by Dec. 31 of next year unless fewer than 85 percent of the homes in a market can receive digital signals. The uncertainty of the 85 percent rule has allowed broadcasters to retain their analog spectrum.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) is driving the hard deadline legislation in the House. Barton and Stevens chair the House and Senate committees that will vet the legislation.

"It appears that the debate over whether to set a 'hard date' is now virtually settled," Rhett Dawson, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, said in a statement. "Now we can move on to resolving other issues surrounding the transition, such as the details of a converter box assistance program."