The head of NTIA indicated Thurs that low-cost digital set-tops, which will be banned from deployment after July 1 under FCC rules, could "take pressure off" the govt’s subsidy program to keep analog TV sets working. That was music to the cable industry’s ears, as it has been arguing for nearly a year for waivers that would allow continued deployment for some low-end boxes with integrated security. NTIA dir John Kneuer’s comments came during Thurs’ House Telecom subcmte hearing. Rep Fred Upton (R-MI) asked whether low-cost digital boxes offered by the cable industry could serve as a complement to the govt’s voucher program for digital converter boxes. "I think any increase in distribution of boxes to consumers… from whatever quarter, will certainly ease the program," Kneuer said. Much of the hearing, which lasted for several hours, centered on Dems complaining that the NTIA program doesn’t have enough funding to ensure that millions of analog sets will still work after Feb 17, 2009. Initially, all households with analog sets—even if they subscribe to cable or DBS—are eligible for up to two $40 coupons for a converter box that will ensure their TVs continue to receive signals. After that first wave of about 22.5mln coupons is distributed, the next and final round of vouchers (about 11mln) are limited to homes that only receive over-the-air TV. Upton is clearly in cable’s camp on the set-top integration ban, which forces cable operators to deploy only boxes with separable security after July 1. "Unfortunately, the FCC’s Media Bureau recently denied certain waivers from the integrated set-top box rule, which will have the result of forcing consumers to pay $2-$3 more per month to lease a set top box that offers no new features," Upton said in his opening statement. "I think the integration ban is a bad idea. But when viewed in the context of the government’s strong interest in promoting an efficient transition to digital television with minimal consumer impact, it’s even worse."

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