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2009 Goes to House Floor

After hours of pontificating and grandstanding, the House Commerce Committee passed a DTV bill to end analog TV transmissions at the crack of Jan. 1, 2009 and fund digital-to-analog converter boxes to the tune of $990 million.

Committee Democrats agitated to the end to put more money toward D2A converters. The final package provides for two $40 coupons to unspecified "qualifying" households until the D2A fund is exhausted, potentially leaving millions of consumers to fend for themselves.

At a markup session that lasted nearly eight hours, several Democrats characterized the Republican-authored legislation as a TV tax on the poor to fund tax breaks for the rich.

"There no reason for consumers to have to pay anything," said Lois Capps (D-Calif.) "It's not their faults their TVs won't work anymore."

Gene Green (D-Texas) said House Democrats would have been happy with a $3 billion package like the one on the way to the Senate floor.

"I don't know why we're treating this like a welfare program. The spectrum belongs to the public," he said. "I never thought this committee would impose a tax on television."

The Republicans in turn characterized the Democrats as a bunch of wanton spendthrifts, particularly after Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) pushed amendments to send D2A vouchers to every household in the country. Shaking his head, Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) reckoned that would cost about $12 billion, or $2 billion more than the analog spectrum is expected to bring at auction. The Dingell and Markey amendments were shot down by the Republican majority.

Markey, the day's mouthpiece for the Democratic cause, predicted dire consequences.

"This bill will put pressure on a future Congress to move the date yet again," he said. "It represents an unconstitutional taking of private property without compensation. Thirty-million analog sets were sold last year; 18 million were sold this year. You're going to shut them off in three years?"

"If someone came in and took the TV set you bought in 2006 for $500 and threw it out the window, you've have them arrested."

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) countered that most folks have cable or DBS, and a universal subsidy program would just confuse people. Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) came unglued over Markey's "takings" argument and later introduced an amendment to eliminate the D2A subsidy altogether. It was defeated.

Of the $990 million designated to D2As, $160 million is for administration and education, leaving $830 million to pay for converters. The program is first-come, first-serve, with a one-year request window that ends the same day the bill shuts down analog transmitters--Jan. 1, 2009. All coupons will expire three months after being issued.

The bill goes so far as to define a D2A as a relatively stripped-down box "that does not contain features or functions except those necessary" to receive and display DTV signals on an analog-only set. The language represents a win for the Consumer Electronics Association, which snorted at broadcast lobby efforts to establish D2A performance standards. The CEA also dodged a D2A power consumption constraint proposed by Markey, who conjured a cataclysmic draw on the nation's energy grid. Markey's proposal was put down in favor of another that set maximum standby D2A power consumption at 9 watts--about what current prototypes use.

As for warning the public of the impending shutdown, the House bill also requires TV set makers to start labeling analog-only sets six months after passage:
"This television has only an analog broadcast tuner. After Dec. 31, 2008, television broadcasters will broadcast only in digital format. You will then need to connect this television to a digital-to-analog convert box or cable or satellite service if you wish to receive broadcast programming... etc."

Retailers will have to start displaying a similarly worded warning in stores 45 days after passage of the bill, and cable operators will have to include it in mailings.

Broadcasters will have to run twice daily PSAs on the analog shutdown, between 8 and 9 a.m., and 8 and 9 p.m., although Barton indicated that timeframe could be subject to negotiation in conference.

In conjunction with labeling, the bill moves the ATSC tuner mandate deadline for TVs bigger than 13 inches up to March 1, 2007, instead of the current end of '07.

Cable definitely swept the must-carry battle in the House bill, which allows downconversion at headends. And while it provides for digital must-carry "without material degradation" on systems with capacity of at least 550 MHz through Jan. 1, 2014, it allows cable operators to carry high-definition broadcast signals in standard definition.

National Cable and Telecommunications Association chief Kyle McSlarrow nonetheless played the martyr:

"We are willing to make this significant concession expressly to facilitate Congressional action returning broadcasters' analog spectrum for important uses like public safety and to facilitate the consumer transition," he said in a prepared statement.

Other allocations in the House bill include $300 million to digitize low power TV stations and translators; $500 million for emergency comms, and $30 million for New York broadcasters who lost transmission plants on 9/11. New transmitters will be placed atop the planned Freedom Tower, but not until a year after the 2009 deadline. The New York funds were wrangled by Rep. Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) in lieu of a deadline waiver for the New York stations.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) slipped in an amendment ordering the FCC to issue a Report and Order on unlicensed devices (ET Docket No. 04-186) within a year of the bill's passage. The FCC will also have to issue progress reports on TV channel assignments, which will be frozen between July 31, 2007 and Jan. 1, 2009.

Just last week, a DTV bill was sent to the Senate floor with an analog end date of April 7, 2009 and a $3 billion D2A subsidy. The discrepancies will be worked out in conference after floor votes in the coming weeks.