House Reveals Draft of DTV Bill

Following through on threats to take control of the digital television transition, lawmakers released a draft of a bill that would attack several of the barriers to DTV ubiquity. Among other provisions, broadcasters would have to vacate their analog channels on Dec. 31, 2006. The bill would eliminate the requirement t
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Following through on threats to take control of the digital television transition, lawmakers released a draft of a bill that would attack several of the barriers to DTV ubiquity.

Among other provisions, broadcasters would have to vacate their analog channels on Dec. 31, 2006. The bill would eliminate the requirement that 85 percent of a given market's viewers have DTV receivers before stations must shut off the analog.

The bill, if passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president, could end other long-fought debates. One key item would eliminate broadcasters' hopes of forcing cable operators to carry both the digital and analog signals of a station during the transition when the digital and analog content is the same. The bill draft, however, does not address the carriage requirements when the broadcaster broadcasts multiple program streams in its digital signal.

The bill would also direct the FCC to make rules on the "broadcast flag" to prevent illegal copying of content. The bill would call for the FCC, by 2006, to protect the content without imposing unnecessary burdens on manufacturers, stifling innovation or hindering the operation of equipment made before 2006. News and public-affairs programming would be exempted from the flag, and the new rules could not "alter or diminish the functionality of consumer equipment intended for legal, noncommercial use." To prevent analog end-runs on digital copy protection, the bill would ban manufacture of equipment with analog outputs by July 2005. The bill does not explain how Congress expects the FCC to reach those required legal and technical balances.

From cable operators, the bill would require transmission using uniform standards, enabling the development of universal plug-and-play television sets, by July 2005. The bill specifically would not require two-way capability.

On the subject of built-in digital TV receivers, the bill would affirm the recent phase-in mandated by the FCC.

The bill would also mandate a phased-in requirement for network-affiliated stations to pass through network signals without signal degradation, meaning that a high-definition network program could not be downconverted to standard definition.

The bill draft does not include any requirement of high-definition programming by networks, nor does it mandate any high-definition programming by cable or satellite operators.

The House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet will hold a hearing on the legislation Wed., Sept. 25. A witness list for the hearing has not yet been released.

NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association issues a noncommittal statement that it would "look forward to working with the committee" and would continue to seek inter-industry solutions.