RealTime IT News

Senate Panel Eyes Vote on Digital TV Switch

U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alas.) wants to set an April 7, 2009, hard deadline for broadcasters to vacate their analog spectrum and air programs only in digital signals.

A portion of the vacated spectrum would be dedicated to first responders with the rest auctioned off to wireless broadband providers.

In draft legislation circulated on Capitol Hill Friday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would begin the auction process on Jan. 28, 2008. Estimates for total proceeds from the auction range from $10 to $30 billion.

Stevens' powerful Senate Commerce Committee plans to vote on the bill as early as Wednesday. Similar legislation will be introduced in the House by the end of the month.

The draft bill also calls for the establishment of a Digital Transition and Public Safety Fund to assist consumers in the purchase of electronic devices to convert digital signals to analog. Without the converter boxes, Americans without cable service or a digital television set will see their reception turn to snow after the hard deadline. The converter boxes currently retail for approximately $35.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), more than 20 million U.S. households currently receive only over-the-air analog television signals.

The High Tech DTV Coalition, a Silicon Valley group that includes Microsoft , Intel , Cisco and Dell , immediately jumped on Stevens' scheduling to promote moving broadcasters out of the spectrum.

"The completion of the DTV [digital television] transition will free up spectrum that will provide tremendous opportunities to promote growth in the United States economy," the group wrote to Stevens Friday.

Admitting that are "many challenges" associated with the DTV transition, the group urged Congress to "remain focused on the concrete benefits of getting additional spectrum into the marketplace as soon as possible: enhanced public safety communications'and the deployment of ubiquitous broadband services to consumers."

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, venture capitalist John Doerr, Intel Chairman Craig Barrett and Cisco President and CEO John Chambers, among others, signed the letter.

Gates and his fellow high tech executives added, "The benefits of concluding the DTV are so clear that virtually all stakeholders, including broadcasters, now agree that a hard date of no later than Jan. 1, 2009, is inevitable."

Congress originally voted in 1996 to move broadcasters out of the analog spectrum by Dec. 31, 2006. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) lobbied against the hard deadline and lawmakers modified the legislation to a less certain deadline.

The law now says if more than 15 percent of the homes in a market cannot receive a digital signal, the broadcasters can retain the analog spectrum. Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell predicts that without a hard deadline, the digital television (DTV) transition could take more than a decade to happen.

While lawmakers often gave lip service to the DTV transition over the last few years, it took the deficit and Hurricane Katrina to kick the issue into high gear.

In the spring, the Republican leadership ordered both the Senate and House Commerce Committees to find $4.8 billion each in new revenue to help slice the $400 billion and growing deficit. The potential auction proceeds of selling off the broadcasters' analog spectrum became an irresistible target.

Hurricane Katrina again underscored the point that first responders are working with outdated communications systems that lack interoperability.

"The ability of public safety first responders to use this spectrum was identified as critical to our homeland security by Congress in 1997 and again by the 9/11 Commission in 2004," the High Tech DTV Coalition wrote. "It is more than unfortunate that this spectrum remains unavailable to first responders because the DTV transition remains in limbo."