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Senate Panel Approves April 7, 2009 Analog Shutoff

The Senate Commerce Committee yesterday voted 19-3 to end analog broadcast TV on April 7, 2009, a day that could either live in infamy or get scuttled in political gobbledy-gook.

The date is ensconced in the "Digital Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005," a bill driven by a budget reconciliation requirement that the Commerce Committee come up with $4.8 billion over the next five years. The previous end date of Dec. 31, 2006, was established to help balance the budget eight years ago. It is not clear if the $26 billion expected from spectrum auctions at that time was borrowed against and subsequently added to the deficit.

The current bill establishes the following items to be funded from spectrum auction proceeds (in order of priority): $3 billion for a converter box subsidy program; $200 million to digitalize LPTV stations and translators; $1 billion for state and local comms interoperability; $250 million for a national alert and tsunami warning system established in the WARN Act; $250 million for E-911; $200 million for hurricane relief; and $75 million for essential air service. These items, totaling $4.9 billion, are in addition to the $4.8 billion earmarked for reconciliation. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the broadcast spectrum will bring $10 billion. The bill directs auctions to commence Jan. 28, 2008.

Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has made no bones about what's driving the current bill. He has often stated that the committee has to cough up cash, and that auctioning the broadcast spectrum was the easiest way to do it. Thus he was adamant at the committee mark-up session on Thursday when other members tried to mess with his hard date.

Responding to a proposed amendment from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to roll the date back to 2007, Stevens said doing so would affect auction proceeds. "We've asked the CBO about this... they said it will not raise the $4.8 billion required under budget reconciliation. And they told us 40 million digital converters would cost an additional $1.2 billion." Stevens urged his colleagues not to support McCain's amendment, and most did not. It was shot down 17-5.

A subsequent amendment raised the initial amount going directly into the Treasury from $4.8 billion to $5 billion, meaning that $9.9 billion of the anticipated $10 billion in auction proceeds has been spent. However, given that the private sector places the value of the spectrum closer to $20 billion, the amendment also provided that any auction proceeds in excess of that $9.9 billion go into the Treasury as well. The amendment was approved, but not before Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) made a 20-minute play for the nonexistent funds.

During the same mark-up session, the committee approved of the WARN (Warning, Alert, and Response Network) Act of 2005. WARN directs the establishment of a national alert system across broadcast, cable, Internet, DBS, radio, cell phones and just about any other comms device short of two cans and a string. Another bill requiring the disclosure of video news releases was also OK'd.

As for additional DTV legislation covering multicasting, down-rezzing and "educating" the public about the analog shutdown to come, discussions will begin in the coming week, Stevens said.