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Update: Congress Must Pick Final Cutoff Date, Subsidy Amount

With the recent House Commerce Committee approval of its chamber's budget reconciliation measure--which incorporates various DTV transition issues--the hard date for a final analog blackout is Dec. 31, 2008. Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee had already approved a hard date of April 7, 2009.

The Senate committee had rejected an expected amendment from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to set a 2007 cutoff date. McCain is still pushing to secure spectrum ASAP for first responders, a position he adopted soon after Sept. 11, 2001, that was reinforced in the wakes of Gulf Coast Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

While the two proposed cutoff dates are not particularly political (a compromise date will be hashed out and then agreed upon in conference committee), what is becoming a political hot potato is the amount of subsidies the federal government should allocate for mostly low-income consumers who may need help purchasing analog-to-digital converter boxes for analog sets.

The House bill so far commits less than $1 billion to both help fund a consumer education campaign and a subsidy pool. The Senate's proposed subsidy (which would not be disbursed based solely on need), amounts to about $3 billion. Democrats reportedly think the Republicans are earmarking far too little funding for the subsidy plan. (Some politicians have gone as far as to echo a handful of news stories claiming that at the stroke of midnight on the eventual cutoff date, all analog TV sets will immediately become useless, which is untrue.)

At press time, the full Senate was tentatively scheduled to move its budget reconciliation package to the floor this week.