RealTime IT News

Lawmakers Disagree on DTV Deadline, Subsidies

The U.S. House and Senate are $2 billion and four months apart in their legislative efforts to finally wean Americans off analog broadcasting.

Both, however, seem intent on making 2009 the final transition year for broadcasters.

Last week, the Senate Commerce Committee agreed to a hard deadline of April 7, 2009, for television stations to begin digital broadcasts. Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to approve a deadline of Dec. 31, 2008.

The two key committees are much further apart in how much to spend on a digital converter box subsidy program for Americans. The Senate bill focuses on $3 billion to subsidize the transition. The House, on the other hand, thinks it can be done for $1 billion.

In any event, deficit-challenged lawmakers are anxious to move broadcasters out of their current "beachfront" spectrum in order to dedicate those airwaves to public safety and to auction off other portions to wireless broadband providers.

Senate Commerce Committee Chair Ted Stevens (R-Ala.) says he prefers the April 2009 deadline, in order to give broadcasters one last break before they go digital.

"That's after the NCAA finals, after the football games, after the holidays. Everybody says you just can't make this happen at a time when there's some really important part of the communications media being exercised, in effect," Stevens told a Capitol Hill luncheon last week.

In 1996, Congress set a digital television (DTV) transition date of Dec. 31, 2006. Under pressure from broadcasters, Congress revised that date with a complicated formula that many think could delay the transition for years.

"The transition from analog to digital television will be one of the most significant technology transformations in our lifetime," Stevens' counterpart in the House, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), said in a statement.

Barton added, "Done the right way, it will mean better television for millions of Americans, cutting-edge new services in the marketplace and better communications capabilities for first responders."

He said the current law is unacceptable.

"The interests and continued prosperity of the American people demand we do better," Barton said.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Internet Committee, echoed Barton's theme.

"The stakes are too high for Congress not to get the job done," he said. "Clearing spectrum for our first responders is not only the right thing to do, it surely helps us be better prepared for our next emergency."

Under the House plan, broadcasters will be required to broadcast exclusively in digital beginning in little more than two years. After the Dec. 31 2008 deadline, consumers who receive over-the-air television will have to buy a digital television set or a converter box to switch analog signals into digital signals.

Barton and Upton's plan is to make every household in America eligible for two coupons that can be applied toward the purchase of a digital-to-analog converter box. Each coupon will have a value of $40.

The differences in the House and Senate bills will be reconciled as part of the budget process underway in Congress.