updated 10/14/2005 6:40:51 PM ET 2005-10-14T22:40:51

Congress is zeroing in on early 2009 as the time for the country to make the switch to digital television broadcasts, a move that will give viewers sharper pictures and better sound.

A Senate bill would set a firm deadline of April 2009, according to a draft proposal obtained Friday by The Associated Press. The draft of a House bill would end analog transmissions on Dec. 31, 2008.

In addition to working out a compromise on the date, lawmakers must decide whether to keep a Senate provision calling for the federal government to pay for converter boxes that would allow people who don’t have or can’t afford a digital TV, or cable or satellite, to continue to receive over-the-air local stations.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is expected to take up the bill Wednesday.

Current law calls for television broadcasters to switch to all-digital transmissions by late 2006, or when 85 percent of households have the ability to receive digital signals. But there’s confusion about how to count the 85 percent, so Congress is stepping in to set a so-called “hard date” — requiring broadcasters to end the transmission of their traditional analog signal.

The broadcasters’ move to all-digital will free up valuable radio spectrum.

Some of the frequencies were promised to public safety groups in 1997, and they’ve been waiting for years for the broadcasters to vacate the analog spectrum. Those channels will help improve congestion and other communications problems on the emergency radios used by fire, police and others.

Besides setting a hard date, the Senate bill would designate an undermined amount of money, possibly $1 billion, to help public safety officials buy new equipment or invest in networks that would help improve communications across their own communities and across entire regions.

The spectrum that isn’t allocated for public safety will be auctioned by the government. Congressional officials estimate its value at about $10 billion.

In a letter to lawmakers on Friday, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and other industry leaders urged Congress to speed the transition to DTV so the auctioned spectrum could be used for wireless broadband and other services, especially in rural and poor areas. They called for the earliest possible deadline but said it should be no later than Jan. 1, 2009.

A member of the coalition that sent the letter said he wasn’t disappointed that the proposed deadline in the Senate bill is April 7, 2009.

“We are not going to argue over a few months,” said Ralph Helmann, senior vice president of government relations at the Information Technology Industry Council. “Having a hard date was very significant.”

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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