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Senate Committee Approves DTV Bill

Washington — The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation voted, 19-3, yesterday supporting a DTV bill that would impose an April 7, 2009 end to analog broadcasting.

The bill also includes $3 billion to subsidize the cost of digital-to-analog converter boxes for consumers threatened with the loss of television service after the analog cutoff.

As required, the bill also is to raise at least $4.8 billion in revenue from the sale of frequency spectrum when broadcasters turn over their analog channels. It was sent on to the Senate’s budget committee for markup in a reconciliation bill on Oct. 26.

The committee voted down an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) calling for the return of the analog broadcast spectrum two years earlier — April 7, 2007 — in order to give first responders to emergencies badly need spectrum for communications needs.

McCain had argued that first responders to the 9/11 disaster in New York City and to areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina lost communications after broadcast towers went down, a situation that could have been alleviated or averted with updated equipment using the more robust TV spectrum.

Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) said he supported McCain’s intent but was told by the Congressional Budget Office that the earlier cutoff date would prevent the panel from raising the $4.8 billion it is required to have in the bill before sending it on to the Budget Committee.

Instead, Stevens said he will propose an amendment to the reconciliation bill when it goes to the Senate floor asking to borrow funds immediately against the money raised by the spectrum auction to fund emergency communications equipment and systems.

First responders have said it could take several years to raise funds to purchase and develop the new emergency communications systems.

Emergency communications systems “will get to first responders a lot faster than in [McCain’s] bill,” Stevens said, adding that the communications systems would be ready when a portion of the analog TV spectrum becomes available for first-responder use.

Once on the floor of the Senate the bill is expected to receive a number of additional, and more controversial, amendments, one urged by the National Association of Broadcasters to require cable and satellite TV “must-carry” of multicast signals.

Broadcasters, who use their digital TV spectrum to broadcast multiple compressed channels of standard definition content, want to ensure that those services are carried by multi-channel service providers.

The TV service providers, who have limited bandwidth, want the freedom to determine for themselves whether or not they carry any secondary local TV content.

Because such amendments can be challenged and require 60 votes to pass, Stevens kept them out of the main bill to ensure the digital TV transition date was in place.

The Senate Commerce Committee also plans a second DTV bill which will include, among other things, how to administer subsidies for set-top digital-to-analog converter boxes. That bill is expected to go to markup next month.