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Congress split over converter subsidies

Last week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee got its chance to prove that democracy — especially democracy involving broadcast television — is messy indeed. Now, both the House and the Senate have separate end games for the longest running communications technology transition in American history. The question now is how will the issues ultimately be decided?

A Republican-sponsored draft DTV bill approved last week by the House committee would set Dec. 31, 2008, as the deadline for broadcasters to shut down analog operations. That’s a bit earlier than the Senate version, which chose April 7, 2009, as the turnoff date so as not to interfere with viewers watching the Men’s and Women’s NCAA basketball tournaments in March.

But the serious dispute — rooted in opposing party philosophies — came over the proposed federal subsidy to fund digital-to-analog off-air converters for those left behind with analog sets and no pay television service.

Under the Republican proposal, just under $1 billion is set aside for the subsidy. Millions of TV sets would need a converter box costing $50 to receive OTA television once analog signals cease. The Republicans' version of the bill would require a $10 per STB payment.

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) and his colleague, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), offered a substitute bill calling for an April 7, 2009, deadline and authorization of unspecified sums — estimated at $3.5 billion to $4 billion — for a digital television subsidy. It failed on a 28-21 vote.

The Dingell-Markey substitute would have brought the House bill more into line with the Senate Commerce Committee measure, which allocates $3 billion for the converter box subsidy.

The Republicans would establish a $990 million program to subsidize converter boxes and provide up to two $40 coupons per household for consumers who request them.

Funding for the converter box subsidy is expected to come from the estimated $10 billion the federal government expects to gain from auctioning the analog spectrum that broadcasters will return upon completing their shift to digital.

Neither version of the DTV legislation addresses multichannel must-carry, a controversial issue being pushed hard by broadcasters. Attempts are expected soon to amend the pending bills to include a must-carry provision.

But that’s a double-edged sword for broadcasters. Rep. Markey wants to force cable operators to carry all of a broadcaster’s digital TV signals, but he wants to mandate new public service obligations including up to 18 hours of programming a week and free time for political candidates.

Once the two bills clear the House and Senate, all differences must be eliminated before it can be sent to the president. No word yet on whether he would sign such a bill.

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