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Stevens backs 2009 digital deadline as lawmakers finalize DTV legislation

U.S. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK)said last week that he supports setting 2009 as the year for completing the transition to digital television. Stevens said his committee would take up DTV legislation to set a hard deadline on Oct. 19, Reuters reported.

With a Jan. 1, 2009, hard date, there would be three Christmas buying seasons during which Americans would buy digital television sets, Stevens said in remarks to the Association of Maximum Service Television conference.

After the analog television turnoff, the government plans to auction most of the analog airwaves to commercial wireless providers, a sale that is expected to raise billions of dollars. Some airwaves would be set aside for public safety organizations.

Stevens and other lawmakers want to use some of that auction money to partially subsidize equipment to convert digital back into analog for those households that cannot afford to buy new sets.

Steven said the Oct. 19 committee session is part of the budget reconciliation process. Senate rules restrict consideration of non-budget provisions on reconciliation bills, which means that issues such as multichannel must-carry may be precluded in the primary bill due to a procedural roadblock, the National Journal reported. This would require all non-budgetary issues to be addressed in separate legislation.

Steven’s aide, Christine Kurth, told the conference that a subsidy for converter boxes to allow consumers to watch digital programming on sets that receive analog signals likely would pass under the Byrd rule — named for Sen. Robert Byrd, (D-WV).

The Byrd rule dates back to the 1980s when its sponsor chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee. Because reconciliation bills are immune from filibusters, the rule was written to prevent "extraneous matter" — primarily non-budget proposals —from being attached to a measure that required only 51 votes to pass, as opposed to the 60 votes needed to cut off a filibuster.

Stevens said that legislation to fund location-based, "enhanced" 911 services — or E-911 — as well as a measure to fund a new DTV-based emergency alert service might be included in the reconciliation package.

Broadcasters expressed worries about the second bill strategy — noting that a single senator can more easily defeat non-budgetary legislation under Senate rules, since such a measure is subject to a filibuster, the National Journal reported.

Under the current plan, all broadcast and telecom proposals would fall into a second, non-budgetary bill. Kurth said no decisions have been made about what elements will fit into the second bill.

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