A U.S. Senate panel Thursday set an April 7, 2009 deadline for television stations to switch entirely to digital broadcasts, the latest effort to provide certainty to the transition that will free airwaves for wireless companies and emergency responders.
The legislation approved by the Senate Commerce Committee would require stations to end their analog broadcasts and return those airwaves to the government, some of which would be sold in an auction that could bring in $10 billion or more.
The bill also earmarks up to $3 billion to subsidize some of the cost for Americans to buy devices that would convert digital signals so existing analog television sets could still work. The cost of the boxes is expected to be about $50.
“We take the position that, if we’re mandating this conversion, we cannot leave people behind,” Sen. Ted Stevens, the committee chairman and an Alaska Republican, told reporters. “I don’t expect to lose that $3 billion” in debate on the Senate floor.
Current law requires stations to switch to airing only digital broadcasts when 85 percent of the country can receive the new signals, or by Dec. 31, 2006, whichever comes later. Experts have said that could take a decade, prompting lawmakers to seek a more certain date.
One lawmaker warned that Congress must act swiftly to fully educate consumers about the switch. Broadcasters estimate there are 73 million television sets in American homes not hooked up to cable or satellite services and that rely on broadcasts.
“Most of the consumers have no idea how this transition will work and do not realize their TVs are going to go dark,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat.
The panel plans to soon draft another bill to address that and other issues, Stevens said.
Helping first responders
The Senate panel turned aside an attempt by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, to push up the 2009 date by two years so emergency personnel can use some of the airwaves to better communicate.
During recent disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and when the World Trade Center twin towers were toppled in 2001, police, fire and rescue officials have had trouble communicating vital information.
Stevens argued that moving the auction up would not raise enough funds to meet commitments, or provide enough time for the converter boxes to be made at a low cost.
The April 7, 2009 date would avoid interfering with popular sporting events, such as the NCAA college basketball tournament, which draws enormous television audiences, as well as provide time for consumers to buy new digital-ready sets.
The measure provides $4.8 billion to help with the federal budget and allocates $1 billion for making communications by emergency personnel interoperable.
Companies such as Motorola Inc. could benefit since it makes communications equipment used by emergency personnel.
“This permits public safety to begin to plan to deploy the advanced technology capabilities that they know they must have to deal with today’s emergencies,” said Bill Anaya, Motorola’s senior director of congressional operations. “Motorola looks forward to continuing to deploy public safety networks.”
The House is expected to act next week on its own legislation, but a draft of the measure floated earlier this year did not include a converter subsidy program.