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House, Senate Still in Squabble Over DTV Details

WASHINGTON –- Though a U.S. House panel joined its Senate counterpart Wednesday in agreeing to flip a 2009 switch on digital broadcasting, much remains in question.

The precise date, the exact cost and the absolute certainty of the digital television transition are issues that stand between the two entities as they search for a resolution.

As with all federal budget reconciliation bills, though, everything and anything is negotiable.

The House says the job to clear television broadcasters out of their current analog spectrum, as well as auction off the beachfront airwaves to wireless broadband providers, can be done for $1.5 billion and be complete by Jan. 1, 2009.

An auction for the spectrum is expected to garner $10 billion to $30 billion from companies anxious to build a broadband alternative to DSL and cable-modem providers.

The House estimates the costs involved in raising the money include a nearly $1 billion consumer subsidy for digital signal converter boxes and $500 million in interoperability gear for public-safety agencies that will also receive a slice of the coveted spectrum.

"Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009, will be the day America goes all digital," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) proclaimed. "The analog television signals that have come into our homes over the air since the birth of TV will end the night before. A great technical revolution that has been in the making for years will finally be complete."

But senators favor April 7, 2009, as a date certain for the DTV transition. They want to increase the converter box subsidies to $3 billion. The equipment needed to meet the 911 Commission's recommendation for first-responder support, the Senate thinks, should be $1.2 billion.

The three-month difference in deadlines, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Ala.) explained last week, gives broadcasters one last chance to reap some final analog profits before skipping off to digital land.

"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" Stevens said.

Well, not exactly everybody.

Wednesday, Barton dismissed Stevens' concerns over maximizing broadcasters' profits, telling reporters a Jan. 1 date "just makes sense. It's the end of one year and the beginning of another."

The small difference in drop-dead dates, however, pales in comparison to the differences in consumer subsidies.

Barton's House version slices more than $2 billion from Stevens' plan. Democrats on the House panel criticized the subsidy as not being enough and unfair to the poor.

"What if the government were to turn off everyone's phone and then said it will cost $60 each to have service turned back on," Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) asked. "Ninety-nine percent of U.S. consumers have no idea that their analog sets will go dark in three years."

Markey added that the subsidies still require Americans to co-pay for a converter box, calling the payments a "TV tax."

Even within his party, Barton faced some opposition on the subsidies. Indiana Republican Steve Buyer said in a time of deficit crisis, lawmakers shouldn't be spending money on better television reception.

Buyer proceeded to introduce an amendment to eliminate all subsidies, an idea that was defeated but not before nine other Republicans voted for the amendment.

Barton must now sell his bill to the House as a whole. Stevens faces the same challenge in the Senate. Then, differences between the two chambers will have to reconciled.