Senate Hard Date: April 7, 2009

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Millions of analog-TV sets could go dark April 7, 2009, under a Senate Commerce Committee leadership bill designed to complete broadcasters’ transition to digital-TV transmission.

The draft -- sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and ranking member Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) -- did not include provisions on whether cable systems need to carry multiple digital-programming streams provided by local TV stations.

The April 2009 date would terminate analog-TV service in the United States. The National Association of Broadcasters estimated that 73 million analog-TV sets would no longer function if analog service were terminated today.

The Stevens-Inouye bill was aimed at meeting the panel's budget obligations set by the Senate earlier in the year. The bill would require the Federal Communications Commission to auction the recovered analog-TV spectrum starting in January 2008 -- a move expected to bring in about $10 billion.

About $4.8 billion in auction revenue would go to the U.S. Treasury. Stevens aides said Friday that a portion of the billions of dollars left over could be used to help fund digital-to-analog converter boxes to ensure that analog TVs keep working.

But the bill did not include key details, such as eligibility requirements for set-top subsidies, due to a Senate rule that attempts to keep policy provisions away from spending bills.

The bill calling for an April 2009 analog cutoff is scheduled to come up for a committee vote Wednesday. Stevens and Inouye are scheduled to meet Monday to consider drafting and holding a vote Wednesday on a second bill that might address multicasting, conversion of digital-TV signals at the headend and set-top-subsidy details. Stevens aides said the set-top issue was a struggle because it was difficult to predict the cost of boxes and the number needed in early 2009.

NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said his organization was studying the draft

Janice Obuchowski, executive director of the High Tech DTV Coalition -- which supports expedited return of the analog spectrum for use by wireless-broadband providers -- applauded the April 2009 date.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokesman Brian Dietz said his group was reviewing the draft.

In addition to ending the digital-TV transition, the Stevens-Inouye bill is designed to allocate 24 megahertz of analog spectrum to first responders, including police and fire teams, for crisis communications on channels free from interference. Some auction revenue would also be used to fund the equipment needs of first responders that intend to exploit the new airwaves.

“This is a bipartisan bill that has at its heart making prime spectrum available for public safety that puts its lives on the line every day, and it would make money available to utilize that spectrum," Senate Commerce Committee staff director Lisa Sutherland said.

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