Washington— It just might be time to reach for the Sharpie and mark up the calendar.
In comments last week, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said that the transition to digital TV will likely come to an end at the dawn of 2009.
“My date would be Jan. 1, 2009,” Stevens told a group of telecommunications lawyers last Monday. “I don’t think anyone is talking about a date beyond 2009.”
Stevens’s support for 2009 put him in agreement with House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). Last month, Barton released draft legislation with Dec. 31, 2008 as the end of the transition after publicly supporting Dec. 31, 2006 for months.
BILL COMING IN WEEKS
Stevens, who expects to introduce a bill in a few weeks, said he planned to build a bipartisan coalition designed to win easy Senate passage.
“It will, I believe, be quite similar to the House staff draft that’s being circulated,” he said, adding that “there will be very little controversy concerning it.”
Stevens said he expects a bill to reach the White House by October at the latest.
“We do want to get it done this year,” he said.
A decade ago, TV stations received digital licenses to provide HDTV and other advanced services. The federal government wants to reclaim the analog spectrum for reallocation to public safety groups and to wireless broadband providers. Analog spectrum auctions could generate between $10 billion and $30 billion for the U.S. Treasury, according to private estimates.
The imposition of a so-called hard date would replace current law, which allows TV stations to keep both licenses until 85% of local households have acquired digital reception equipment. The 85% test has come under fire as unnecessarily prolonging the transition.
Stevens did not address whether he supported a Barton provision that the National Cable & Telecommunications Association has described as effectively requiring dual carriage of some local TV stations.
Under the provision, if a cable operator downconverted to analog the digital signal of a station that elected mandatory carriage, the operator would have to downconvert to analog all other must-carry stations in the market. The Federal Communications Commission could suspend the requirement after five years.
Since cable would want to downconvert a must-carry station or two — probably ones with some local sports rights — the industry views Barton’s provision as compulsory dual carriage.
Barton’s bill would not require cable carriage of multiple DTV programming streams provided by a local TV stations. In March, Stevens voiced support for so-called multicast must-carry, at least for public-interest programming, including news and weather services.
The National Association of Broadcasters is urging Congress to impose multicast must-carry in the DTV transition bill after failing to convince the FCC to do so going back to 2001.
Barton is unlikely to gain bipartisan support until agreement is reached on the scope of subsidies for set-top boxes. The U.S. has an estimated 73 million analog TV sets that rely exclusively on free, over the air broadcasting, with 45 million sets in the 20 million households that do not subscribe to cable or satellite.
Barton wants to target subsidies at low-income consumers, a means-tested approach that keeps the cost in the $1 billion range. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) has been vocal that the federal government has an obligation to keep all 73 million analog set working after the transition, at a cost approaching $4 billion.
PROBLEM: WHO PAYS?
“The biggest problem still is the problem of who pays for those set-top boxes,” said Stevens, who has questioned whether the government ought to shoulder the cost.
Last Wednesday, the Consumer Electronics Association released data showing that about 34 million TV sets or 12% — not 73 million or 26% — are broadcast-only sets.
The CEA, which supports ending the transition on a hard date, released the data in an effort to persuade lawmakers that the set-top box issue is manageable.
“Clearly, the vast majority of TVs in the United States are not used to view over-the-air television and we can presume that these numbers will diminish as more and more Americans subscribe to pay-TV services,” CEA president Gary Shapiro said in a statement.
NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton called the CEA numbers “bogus,” saying they were in conflict with results generated by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
“CEA has no credibility when compared to the highly respected, nonpartisan GAO,” Wharton said.