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updated 4/19/2005 7:40:38 PM ET 2005-04-19T23:40:38

Rep. Joe Barton, a strong supporter of speeding the shift to digital television, recently bought a new analog TV set — the kind that will be obsolete if Congress mandates a nationwide conversion by the end of next year.

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"The salesman absolutely guaranteed that Congress wouldn't do a thing about it," the Texas Republican joked while appearing on a panel this week with other congressional leaders at the National Association of Broadcasters convention.

Not true, said Barton, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He intends to introduce a digital transition bill within three weeks.

"It will have a hard date and that hard date could be Dec. 31, 2006," he told broadcasters.

Proponents believe setting a firm date would bring down the price of digital sets — which can now cost thousands of dollars — and increase production by companies anxious to meet the demand.

"The market is beginning to go digital," Barton said, noting that about half of all TV sets sold this year will be digital-ready.

The federal government is anxious to make the change because the analog spectrum now used by broadcasters could be used by police and firefighters who are running out of communication frequencies.

Digital, meanwhile, provides sharper pictures than analog and allows broadcasters to offer multiple channels over the same signal.

Still, broadcasters remain wary of a firm transition date, claiming set manufacturers are dragging their feet on producing digital-ready sets even as local stations make the conversion and prime-time programs are available in high definition.

Some of Barton's colleagues at the convention doubted the political wisdom of setting a definite changeover date within two years.

"I've said if we punch out our constituents' television sets by a premature date certain, they're going to punch out our political careers by a premature date certain," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said a House bill might not be readily embraced in the Senate.

"What's wrong with market forces?" Burns asked to the applause of hundreds of convention attendees. "We've got to make sure that we don't turn off a lot of television sets in America whenever we make this conversion."

About 21 million homes, or 19 percent of U.S. households, now get TV signals using over-the-air antennas. With the change to digital, those sets would be useless without the addition of a special conversion box.

Barton said his bill would likely include government subsidies for low-income families to ensure that people with analog TVs could afford the boxes expected to sell for about $40.

Current law sets Dec. 31, 2006 as a tentative transition date but also says the timing could be pushed back until 85 percent of homes in a particular market have access to digital TV.

Nationally, only 12 percent of homes now have digital sets, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Barton conceded that the transition date in his bill could be extended but rejected suggestions by a colleague that it be postponed to 2009.

His bill could also call for rebates for middle-income consumers on the conversion boxes and require that TV makers warn consumers that analog sets sold today will need special equipment to keep working after the transition.

Other market forces could also affect the transition.

Telephone companies, including SBC Communications Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. are readying their own fiber-optic networks that could carry digital TV signals by the end of this year.

Geography will also come into play.

Broadcasters in rural areas and parts of the West say it will be difficult to replace transmitters on mountain tops in time for a Dec. 31, 2006 transition date.

Legislators said those concerns would be addressed in their bill.

"Even the U.S. Congress isn't going to mandate what God says can't be done," Barton said.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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