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Barton Slaps Hard Deadline on DTV Transition

As he promised in February, U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) is moving forward with legislation to force television broadcasters out of their beachfront analog spectrum to make way for advanced services, such as wireless broadband.

Under the draft "discussion" legislation introduced this week by Barton, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, broadcasters must cease transmitting programs in analog format by December 31, 2008.

Barton's committee will hold its first hearing on the legislation Thursday.

"We've held four hearings since last year on the digital television transition and dedicated the past two months to seeking a bipartisan consensus. It's now time to take the next step and legislate," Barton said in a statement.

With broadcasters to be removed from the space by a set date, Barton and others envision a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction for the spectrum that could bring in billions to the government.

Under current law, broadcasters are required to vacate their analog spectrum by Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85 percent of the homes in their market are capable of receiving DTV signals from all broadcasters in that market. The 85 percent rule has caused many to question whether the DTV transition can be met this decade.

The rules date back to 1997 when Congress gave broadcasters an additional 6 megahertz of the 700 MHz band to facilitate a transition to digital television. Congress said if more than 15 percent of the homes in a market could not receive a digital signal, the broadcasters could retain the spectrum.

"The current 85 percent penetration test guarantees only confusion and uncertainty. It is far wiser to plan for the coming change than to sit back and wait for television sets to go dark," Barton said in a statement. "That is the common sense principle upon which this discussion draft is predicated."

Television broadcast spectrum is considered especially prime for broadband wireless since it allows for the penetration of walls and other obstacles over large distances.

"This spectrum will also raise billions of dollars at auction, helping us further reduce the federal deficit," Barton said. "In addition, our legislation will foster new investment and job growth in the communications sector. Consumers can look forward to wireless broadband and other services and products unimaginable several years ago."

The draft legislation maintains the FCC's existing digital tuner-mandate deadlines for integrated television receivers that have 25-inch screens or larger, and to accelerate, to July 1, 2006, the deadline for televisions with 13- to 24-inch screens.

In addition, Barton wants manufacturers to place labels on analog-only television sets indicating that those sets will need to be attached to a digital receiver, digital-to-analog converter box or multi-channel video service to continue receiving broadcast programming after Dec. 31, 2008.

"We are contemplating, in our hard-date legislation, the creation of some type of digital-to-analog converter program to assist exclusively over-the-air television households in getting those converter boxes," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said in February.

Last year, the Bush administration said it opposed subsidizing converter boxes for Americans who can't afford the DTV sets. Instead, Bush supports an annual analog spectrum tax on broadcasters who fail to vacate their current spectrum.