Washington— The Senate Commerce Committee last Thursday advanced a bill that called for shutting off free, over-the-air analog television on a firm date — April 7, 2009. Following the cutoff, local TV stations would transmit only digital signals.
If the switch occurred, about 73 million analog-TV sets — 45 million in broadcast homes and 28 million in cable and satellite homes — would go dark, likely triggering a political backlash fatal to the re-election hopes of many Capitol Hill incumbents.
To avoid such an outcome, the Senate panel agreed to spend up to $3 billion to subsidize digital-to-analog converters for the millions of analog TV sets still operating in early 2009. Budget hawks are hoping to trim the $3 billion. A House draft DTV bill floated late last week would provide $830 million for set-tops and end the transition on Dec. 31, 2008.
Due to Senate budget rules, the April 2009 cutoff bill did not address key cable issues, including carriage of multiple digital-TV signals and downconversion of digital signals to analog at the headend. Those and other issues will be pursued in a second bill that might emerge in the Senate this week.
The analog-cutoff bill, sponsored by Commerce chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and ranking member Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), passed by a 19-to-3 vote shortly after the panel voted 17-to-5 to reject moving the date ahead to April 7, 2007, under an amendment sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
The Stevens-Inouye bill will be attached to a larger budget bill that is expected to reach the Senate floor in a few weeks. Stevens said he was optimistic about protecting the set-top funding.
“I don’t expect to lose that $3 billion on the floor,” he said.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee has yet to vote on a DTV transition bill, mainly because committee leaders continue to quarrel over set-top funding.
By establishing a so-called hard date for the transition, Congress would jettison current law, which calls for ending the transition in a particular market when 85% of TV households have the technical means of viewing local DTV signals.
After the transition, the Federal Communications Commission intends to transfer 24 Megahertz of former analog TV spectrum to first responders and auction 60 MHz for at least $10 billion to entities that want to provide mobile high-speed Internet access.
Last week’s House DTV draft bill did not include hotly contested multicast must-carry provisions. Stevens indicated his next DTV bill would.
“We do have to have multicasting decided by legislation,” Stevens said in a speech last week.
Over cable’s opposition, NAB is urging Congress to force cable carriage of all five or six digital services. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association wants no change in current law, which is carriage of just one program service.
The second DTV bill, Stevens added, would address whether cable operators may take digital-TV signals and convert them to analog at the headend. The NCTA has argued that the inability to downconvert at the headend would be massively disruptive to cable customers.
Testifying before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee last Wednesday, McSlarrow said that “out of 66 million cable customers, 40 million of them have analog-only TVs. So unless they get a set-top box or some other converter, their screens will go dark.”