Some Time in 2009

Analog TV broadcasting will end in 2009. Just when in 2009 depends on the compromise hammered out between the House and Senate DTV bills.
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WASHINGTON: Analog TV broadcasting will end in 2009. Just when in 2009 depends on the compromise hammered out between the House and Senate DTV bills.

The Senate bill ends NTSC signals April 7, 2009, after college basketball championship games. The House version cuts power at the crack of Jan. 1, 2009, when two of the biggest games in college football are scheduled--the Orange and Rose Bowls.

The respective bills should reach the House and Senate floors as part of budget reconciliation packages around the time this magazine hits the street. A conference committee will subsequently work out the differences.

Besides setting disparate hard dates, each bill allocated different sums for converter box subsidies, digitizing translators, emergency communications and even when to commence spectrum auctions. The House bill denotes Jan. 7, 2008; the Senate bill starts them three weeks later.

D2A CONVERTER SNIT

Both bills subsidize the digital-to-analog converter boxes necessary for NTSC receivers to continue working after the shutoff. However, where the Senate simply earmarked $3 billion for a program, the House got down in the weeds, parsing out $990 million for boxes, administrative costs and "consumer education."

Democrats on the House Commerce Committee agitated to the end to put more money toward D2A converters. At a markup session that lasted nearly eight hours, Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) pushed amendments to send D2A vouchers to every household in the country, but the bills were shot down by majority Republicans. 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.

"This bill will put pressure on a future Congress to move the date yet again," Markey 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 80 percent of TV households have cable or DBS, and a universal subsidy would just confuse people. Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) blasted Markey's "takings" argument and unsucessfully proposed eliminating the D2A subsidy altogether.

Of the $990 million ultimately designated to D2As, $160 million is for administration and education, leaving $830 million to pay for converters. That amount would cover all 20.8 million U.S. households that rely exclusively on over-the-air television (according to Government Account-ability Office estimates) for one coupon, but not for two. 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 defines 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 "get" for the Consumer Electronics Association, which earlier scoffed over 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 dissed in favor of another by Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) that set maximum standby D2A power consumption at 9 watts--about what current prototypes use.

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 converter 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. Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) indicated he's not married to the timeframe, and that it 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.

CEA chief Gary Shapiro congratulated the committee for establishing a hard date but said nothing about the labeling requirement, the acceleration of the tuner mandate, or the stripped-down D2A clause.

DOWNCONVERSION OK'D

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

This was everything the cable lobby wanted, but National Cable and Telecommunications Association chief Kyle McSlarrow nonetheless characterized the requirement as a compromise.

"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," McSlarrow 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 on the top of 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.

SENATE SIDE

Because of parliamentary rules in the Senate, its DTV deadline bill included no details on multicasting, down-rezzing and public education. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said those items would be addressed in separate legislation.

Instead, the Senate bill consisted primarily of spectrum auction proceed allocations.

It designated (after the $3 billion D2A subsidy program) $200 million to digitize LPTV stations and translators; $1 billion for state and local communications interoperability; $250 million for a national alert and tsunami warning system established in the WARN Act; $250 million for enhanced 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 that must go into the Treasury according to budget reconciliation law.

Stevens did not mince words about what was driving the Senate DTV bill. Both the House and Senate are under the gun to come up with a combined $105 billion in tax and spending cuts. Thus Stevens was adamant at the committee markup session 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.

Another 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 is spent. However, given that the private sector places the value of the spectrum closer to $20 million, the amendment also provided that any auction proceeds in excess of that $9.9 billion go into the Treasury as well. That amendment was approved, but not before Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) made a 20-minute play for the nonexistent funds.

During the same markup 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.

Both bills will go the floors of their respective houses, and differences will be worked out in conference before a final package is passed.