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Senate Commerce Committee approves analog TV deadline

By a 19-3 vote, the Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation setting April 7, 2009, as the hard date for the end of analog television broadcasting in the United States. The measure now moves to the Senate Budget Committee, where it could be considered as early as this week.

After that date, terrestrial television viewers lacking a digital TV set or not subscribing to a pay television service will need a converter box to receive over-the-air broadcasts on an analog TV set.

Even the shutoff date reflected the extraordinary political sensitivity surrounding the issue. April 7, 2009, is the day after the completion of the widely viewed NCAA Mens Final Four basketball tournament.

The bill passed after the committee, by a 17-5 vote, rejected an amendment by Sen. John McCain, (R-AZ), to move the hard date ahead two years to April 7, 2007. McCain has pushed for an earlier date in order to free up a portion of the analog spectrum used by public safety officials.

Joining McCain in voting to accelerate the date were two Republicans: Sens. John Ensign (R-NV) and John Sununu (R-NH); and two Democrats: Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and John Rockefeller (D-WV).

On final passage of the bill, which is to be attached to the pending budget reconciliation package to be taken up by the Senate, the three no votes were cast by Kerry, Rockefeller, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

Introduced by Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK), and Commerce ranking minority member Daniel Inouye (D-HI), the DTV transition bill would create a nearly $5 billion fund from which a range of communications-related projects would be directly funded.

This bill includes $3 billion allocated for the set-top converter boxes allowing individuals with analog TVs to receive digital signals. Under the Stevens-Inouye proposal, viewers would have to come up with a $10 co-pay before purchasing such a boxes. There would be no limit in the number per household, the National Journal reported.

At week’s end it was unclear when the House Energy and Commerce Committee will mark up its version of the DTV bill, which is expected to contain a significantly lower amount, likely $1 billion or less, to subsidize the purchase of converter boxes.

Draft legislation circulated last spring by Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX), set the firm date for the digital TV transition at Dec. 31, 2008.

Stevens acknowledged that many Republicans are seeking a smaller subsidy for the converter boxes than the amount contained in the Senate Commerce Committee plan. But he said that any floor amendment to strip the $3 billion subsidy from the reconciliation bill is likely to fail.

During last Thursday’s committee meeting, Stevens urged members to reject the amendment by McCain for the earlier transition date. Stevens contended that enacting a 2007 transition date would yield lower revenues from the auction of the analog spectrum than waiting until 2009. He also contended there would be higher subsidies needed for the converter boxes under an earlier date, because the cost of such boxes are expected to come down with time.

But McCain, who chaired the Commerce panel until being forced to step down late last year due to GOP term limit rules, disputed Stevens’ contention that set-top boxes would be unduly costly in 2007. He cited testimony before the committee from Motorola and chip-manufacturer Zoran that such converter boxes could be available for less than $67 in time for a 2007 transition date.

When broadcasters vacate the frequencies they currently use to transmit analog television, public safety officials will have access to 24MHz of radio frequencies. An additional 60MHz of spectrum is set to be auctioned to telecommunications companies.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that such an auction will raise $10 billion for the federal treasury, although some estimates from technology firms put that amount at close to $30 billion.

It is from the $10 billion in auction revenues that the Stevens-Inouye bill would draw $4.97 billion into a special communications fund. The remaining $5 billion would go the Treasury — exceeding the $4.8 billion revenue target set for the committee by the Senate Budget Committee. Stevens also said that he aimed to help first responders meet the need for interoperable communication by borrowing money against the anticipated auction revenue.

In addition to the $3 billion for converter boxes, the special communications fund would pay for:

  • $200 million for a program to convert low-power television stations to digital;
  • $1.25 billion for emergency communications of which $250 million would be devoted to a national alert system, including $50 million for a tsunami warning system;
  • $250 million for a program to implement emergency 911 calling;
  • $200 million for a program to provide assistance to coastal states and Indian tribes affected by natural disasters.

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