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Hurricane politics swirl as DTV legislation deadline nears

Hurricane Katrina extended the DTV debate in Congress past it’s original mid-September deadline. Now, facing a new deadline of October 17, a wide range of unresolved broadcast issues still exist.

The mid-October deadline for the Senate Commerce Committee is necessary if the DTV legislation is to become part of the budget reconciliation package — a goal of Congressional leaders who want the DTV legislation on a fast track.

The timetable — now driven by intense pressure to free up spectrum for emergency communications — leaves only days for resolution of some of the most contentious and controversial issues facing terrestrial television broadcasters.

Because of the communications failure during the Katrina disaster, there is support for an earlier analog turnoff date — as early as Jan. 1, 2007. There is equal desire to push the transition in the House. Reps. Curt Weldon and Jane Harman — the latter of whom is the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee — have introduced legislation that sets Dec. 31, 2006, as the “hard date.”

However, their bill — H.R. 1646 — only clears broadcasters from stations 63, 64, 68 and 69. Those four channels total 24MHz, not the 108MHz that will be available for other communications needs once broadcasters vacate. Others want to clear the entire analog spectrum much sooner.

Also caught in the political wind is whether the final DTV legislation will include a provision requiring cable providers to carry more than one digital channel from each local broadcaster. The NAB is relentlessly pushing lawmakers to require cable providers carrying local broadcast channels to carry all of each local broadcaster’s digital program streams.

However, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) argues that a multicast requirement would be unconstitutional, hinder the DTV transition and give broadcasters a competitive advantage over cable networks that have to compete for space on cable providers’ channel lineups.

Several members of Congress are pushing for a compromise on multi-channel must-carry. An aide to Sen. Conrad Burns, a senior Commerce Committee member, told the National Journal that Burns would support requiring cable operators to carry two or three channels of broadcasters’ channels. Another key legislator, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, also supported the notion of two mandatory must-carry channels, a report said.

Also unresolved is the issue of a government subsidy for DTV converter boxes. Once the transition from analog to digital broadcasts takes place, viewers without a digital TV set or pay television service will lose their broadcast signal. A converter box will be needed to receive digital signals on an analog set.

Congressional Republicans want to set a “co-pay” on the boxes at $20 from each consumer. They would then like to supplement that with a subsidy of up to $40 to purchase a device that is expected to cost consumers $60 each. But Senate Commerce ranking member Daniel Inouye wants to set the co-pay lower, at $10 per consumer.

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