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DTV Deadline to Vacate Spectrum Advances

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Commerce Committee voted today to boot broadcasters out of their analog spectrum by no later than April 7, 2009. After that date, broadcasters would air programs only in digital signals.

Lawmakers plan to dedicate part of the vacated analog spectrum for public safety purposes and auction off the rest to wireless broadband providers for as much as $10-$30 billion

The legislation earmarks from the spectrum auction $3 billion for set-top box subsidies for the conversion to digital TV (DTV), along with $1.2 billion to facilitate emergency communications.

Despite the 19-2 committee vote, the legislation still faces an uncertain future in Congress. When the full Senate votes on the bill, the issue of consumer subsidies is likely to be contentious.

In addition, the House of Representatives is expected to begin debating its own DTV bill next week. In early, draft versions of that bill, a hard digital cutoff date is set for Jan. 1, 2009. The House version is also likely to differ from the Senate Commerce's in the amount of money dedicated for the set-top box subsidy program.

"We intend to set aside $3 billion for set-top boxes. We have agreed to have a $10 co-pay from everyone per set and we anticipate that the set-top boxes by that time will cost roughly $50," Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alas.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, told a Free Enterprise Fund Symposium luncheon on Wednesday.

As expected, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) attempted to amend the Stevens' bill and insert a hard deadline of April 7, 2007. McCain said the inability of first responders to communicate during Hurricane Katrina only reinforces the need of the public safety community to have more spectrum.

"This is a very difficult issue that's been with us for some time," McCain said. "It is very clear the sooner we get them [first responders] the spectrum, the better.

McCain added, "The failure of first responders to communicate is just devastating. People lose lives." He called the failure of Congress to act as "outrageous and a scandal."

Before the vote on his amendment, McCain admonished his fellow lawmakers that it's the "same old mantra: the broadcasters versus first responders. I hope, for the first time in history, the first responders will win."

They didn't. McCain's amendment was defeated on a 17-5 vote.

"There's no question that [McCain] is right about one thing, the first responders do need this spectrum as rapidly as possibly, but we've been told, particularly by the electronics industry, that it's not possible to produce 80 million set-top boxes that would be at reasonable prices between now and 2007," Stevens said on Wednesday.

According to Stevens, "If we take the 2007 date, there's not going to be enough money coming in from spectrum even to pay the cost of the set-top boxes if they must be produced by 2007."

Stevens also said the problem for first responders is not more spectrum but the cost of the equipment to have in place when the spectrum becomes available.

The DTV transition became an unexpectedly hot issue in the 109th Congress when the Republican leadership directed the House and Senate Commerce Committees to find $4.8 billion each in new revenue to help slice the deficit.

Current law allows the broadcasters to retain their analog spectrum if more than 15 percent of the homes in a market could not receive a digital signal. Former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell said last year the current law would put off the DTV transition by at least 10 years.