Congressional rift over hard DTV transition deadline?

A possible rift has developed between House and Senate leaders over the setting of a hard deadline for the end of the DTV transition.

Two influential U.S. senators last week urged restraint before setting a turnoff date for analog broadcasting, suggesting a disagreement has developed with their counterparts in the House of Representatives who want a final date.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens told a group of broadcasters that he understands leaders of the House Commerce Committee, Reps. Joe Barton and Fred Upton, want to set Dec. 31, 2006 for finishing the digital television transition.

Stevens, (R-Alaska), said to a group assembled by the NAB that there’s a lot to be answered before that question is decided. He added that he wasn’t committed to any particular proposal, Reuters reported.

Currently, the law requires that broadcasters return their analog spectrum to the federal government by Dec. 31, 2006 or when 85 percent of U.S. homes can see the new digital signals, whichever comes later. The 85 percent clause, an NAB-engineered loophole included in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, could delay the transition indefinitely.

Financial pressures are driving the setting of a hard deadline. The government plans to auction the analog airwaves to commercial wireless service providers, a sale that could bring in billions of dollars.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said the transition should not be accomplished solely to resolve a budget problem.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), however, told the NAB gathering that he favors the hard cutoff date of Dec. 31, 2006. Barton said he believed there was support in the senate for a specific cutoff date, just not his deadline, Reuters reported. To try to alleviate concerns of broadcasters, Barton has proposed using some of the funds raised in the auction to subsidize converter boxes for one television in some households, particularly for low-income families.

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