RealTime IT News

DTV Bill Heads to President's Desk

Let the countdown begin.

Congress finally sent legislation Wednesday to President Bush that sets Feb. 17, 2009, as the end of analog broadcasting in the United States. After that, television sets must have digital tuners to receive an over-the-air signal.

As part of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, the transition to digital television (DTV) is expected to raise billions when the Federal Communications Commission auctions off the analog spectrum currently occupied broadcasters.

Wireless broadband providers are expected to be the primary bidders for the spectrum. A portion of the spectrum will also be reserved for first responders to improve interoperability.

"Congress has taken an important step toward completing the transition to digital television. This will help keep America on the cutting edge by freeing up spectrum for new wireless technologies," Ed Zander, chairman and CEO of Motorola and chairman of the Technology CEO Council, said in a statement.

To help ease the conversion to digital television broadcasting for the approximately 15 percent of American households that currently receive exclusively over-the-air broadcasts, the legislation authorizes $1.5 billion in digital converter-box subsidies

The bill also dedicates $1 billion in grants for first-responder interoperable equipment and training.

Another $156 million is set aside for a national alert system and another $43.5 million for a fully enhanced national 911 emergency alert system.

All funding for the subsidies will come when the analog spectrum auction proceeds.

"We applaud the efforts of Congress and greatly appreciate the final passage of DTV legislation that allocates a portion of the revenue raised during the auction of recovered broadcast spectrum to fund the needs of our first responders for interoperable communications systems," Matthew J. Flanigan, president of the Telecommunications Industry Association, said in a statement.

Both the Senate and the House included provisions in the subsidy legislation designed to minimize participation by consumers who already have a digital tuner in their television sets or receive signals from digital cable systems.

Under the plan, consumers will have to make an "affirmative request" to receive up to two, $40 converter-box coupons. The coupons can't be combined for the purchase of a single converter box that is expected to retail for approximately $60 per unit.

Left in doubt is the subsidy fate of 39 million households that currently subscribe to analog cable services.

As originally drafted, the DTV bill permitted analog cable companies to "down-convert" high-definition digital signals into standard-definition analog signals, allowing subscribers to receive digital television without purchasing a digital converter box.

However, in the deal cut by the Senate and House, the down-convert signal provision was eliminated.