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DTV Transition Date Set

U.S. Senate and House negotiators finally agreed late Sunday on the final details of legislation to complete the country's digital television (DTV) transition.

The deal clears the way to move broadcasters out of their analog spectrum and auction off the space to wireless broadband providers.

Under the compromise agreement, lawmakers set Feb. 17, 2009, as the hard date to complete the transition. The deal also includes a $990 million subsidy to help consumers buy digital converter boxes.

The House approved the compromise early Monday morning and the Senate is expected to vote on the proposal later today. The legislation passed on a vote of 212-206 as the House worked through a rare Sunday session with lawmakers rushing for a Christmas holiday break.

"We will have three years to prepare for the transition," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said in a statement.

"That is more than enough time for manufacturers and retailers to move low-cost digital televisions and converter boxes into the market, for the FCC to complete the channel allocation process, for broadcasters to finalize their digital facilities and for government and industry to prepare consumers for the transition."

The converter box subsidy is structured to minimize participation by consumers who do not need a subsidized converter box.

Under the plan, consumers will have to make an "affirmative request" to receive up to two, $40 converter box coupons.

The legislation makes up to $100 million of the $990 million subsidy program available for administrative costs. And up to $5 million of the administrative funds may be used to educate consumers about the digital television transition and the digital-to-analog converter-box program.

Fewer than 15 percent of U.S. households rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasts. The remaining 85 percent subscribe to cable or satellite television. Cable and satellite operators can convert digital broadcast programming to an analog-viewable format for those households.

The DTV bill is part of a much larger budget package that the House and Senate have been wrangling over all year. Prompted by Republican leadership demands to raise cash to reduce the federal deficit, both chambers immediately eyed the potential $10 billion to $20 billion that the broadcasters' analog spectrum is expected to raise at auction.

The Senate's original proposal set April 17, 2009, as the hard date and allocated $3 billion for a subsidy program, which will come out of the auction proceeds. The House's original version called for a Dec. 31, 2008, deadline with a $1.5 billion subsidy.

"The analog television signals that have come into our homes over the air since the birth of TV will end the night before [Feb. 17, 2009], and a great technical revolution that has been in the making for years will finally be complete," Barton said.

"The DTV legislation brings needed certainty to allow consumers, broadcasters, cable and satellite operators, manufacturers, retailers and government to prepare for the end of the transition."