Late 2008 DTV transition date set

A U.S. House of Representatives committee has set a deadline for U.S. television stations to switch to digital broadcasts, but the House deadline is earlier than the deadline set by a Senate committee a week ago.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee late Wednesday approved legislation setting Dec. 31, 2008, as the date that broadcasters must switch to DTV (digital television) broadcasts, in order transfer the upper 700MHz radio frequency spectrum to emergency response agencies and commercial wireless vendors.

“Thursday Jan. 1, 2009, will be the day America goes all digital,” Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, said in a statement. “The analog television signals that have come into our homes over the air since the birth of TV will end the night before, and a great technical revolution that has been in the making for years will finally be complete.”

On Oct. 20, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved legislation with April 7, 2009, as the deadline. Analog TVs receiving signals over the air would no longer work after the transition unless they had converter boxes attached, and the April transition date would come after the National Football League’s Super Bowl and the U.S. college basketball tournament, two popular television events.

Auctions of 60MHz of the spectrum vacated by broadcasters is projected to raise at least US$10 billion. A group of technology companies has been pressing for a firm deadline for the DTV transition, saying the new spectrum will be optimal for deploying next-generation wireless services.

The High Tech DTV Coalition, with 19 members including IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp., praised the House committee’s action. “We are gratified that there is bipartisan support of the high common ground of the hard date and confident that differences in implementation details will be worked through as this legislative process unfolds,” said Janice Obuchowski, coalition executive director, in a statement.

Supporters of a hard deadline say first responders such as police and firefighters need additional spectrum to improve interoperability between the multiple emergency response agencies in metropolitan areas. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks on the U.S., the national 9/11 Commission recommended that emergency responders should have additional radio spectrum. In many cases, the multiple emergency response agencies responding to the Sept. 11 attacks couldn’t communicate with each other because their radios operated on different spectrum bands. Under current law, broadcasters are required to give up their analog spectrum by the end of 2006, but only in television markets where 85 percent of homes can receive digital signals.

In December 1997, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to reallocate some frequencies in the 700MHz band to public safety and new commercial uses, in exchange for the digital spectrum TV stations received. Most television markets would never reach the 85 percent digital threshold now in law without a hard DTV deadline, critics say.

The next step for the House legislation would be a vote by the full House. If the differences in the House and Senate legislation remain after the full bodies approve them, then the differences would be ironed out in a conference committee made up of members of both bodies. After both bodies approve the compromise, the legislation would need to be signed by President George Bush to become law.

The House bill would appropriate $500 million for first responder agencies to purchase new equipment, and $990 million for converter box subsidies. TV owners could get a $40 rebate for a converter box, projected to cost between $50 and $70. The House relied on Congressional Budget Office estimates of 15 million U.S. homes with analog TV sets not hooked up to cable television service. Cable service can convert digital signals for use with analog TVs.

But some consumer groups have estimated that 80 million TVs in the U.S. would need converter boxes. The Senate’s version of the DTV transition allocates $3 billion for converter box subsidies.

The House legislation would mandate that all new televisions with 13-inch or larger screens include a digital tuner by March 1, 2007. An FCC requirement for larger TV sets is earlier.

The House committee also approved an amendment, offered by Representative Jay Inslee, a Washington state Democrat, that would allow emergency responders to use unlicensed portions of other areas of the spectrum, corresponding to TV channels two to 51.

The upper 700MHz band covers TV channels 60 to 69. A significant amount of the lower spectrum is underutilized in many U.S. markets, Inslee said in a press release.

A representative of the National Association of Broadcasters, which in the past opposed a DTV deadline, wasn’t immediately available for comment Thursday.