House backs compromise digital TV plan
By Jeremy Pelofsky
Mon Dec 19, 1:42 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives on Monday approved legislation to complete the U.S. transition to new, higher-quality digital television by February 17, 2009, and to help consumers pay for the equipment needed to ensure their old televisions do not go dark.
Under a deal negotiated by Republicans in the House and Senate, up to $1.5 billion would be available to help some people buy converter boxes to keep their old, analog-signal televisions working when the transition is finished.
They agreed upon a compromise date that avoids some major televised sporting events such as the annual football Super Bowl in January but would fall before the " March Madness" annual college basketball tournament.
The compromise is part of a larger bill aimed at cutting government spending over the next five years, which was narrowly approved by the House and still must be passed by the Senate. The timing of a Senate vote is uncertain.
"The DTV legislation brings needed certainty to allow consumers, broadcasters, cable and satellite operators, manufacturers, retailers, and government to prepare for the end of the transition," said Rep. Joe Barton (news, bio, voting record), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a Texas Republican.
Current law requires stations to switch to airing only digital broadcasts when 85 percent of the country can receive the new signals, or by December 31, 2006, whichever comes later. Experts have said that could take a long time, prompting lawmakers to seek a more certain date.
Congress is eager for broadcasters to give up the analog airwaves, some of which will be sold for commercial wireless services. Lawmakers earmarked almost $7.4 billion of the likely proceeds to go toward deficit reduction.
The Senate previously had approved a $3 billion converter box fund and set the date as April 7, 2009 for when television stations must end analog broadcasts and only air digital.
The House originally backed a $990 million fund and December 31, 2008 as the date.
Broadcasters estimate there are 73 million television sets in American homes not hooked up to cable or satellite services and that rely on over-the-air broadcasts. Boxes that would convert digital signals back into analog could cost roughly $50, according to industry estimates.
The converter box program would offer up to two $40 coupons to each household upon request to acquire a converter box.
Since most households, about 85 percent, watch television through cable or satellite, the measure also permits providers to convert digital broadcasts back into an analog format for their customers.
Some of the airwaves freed up by broadcasters would be given to public safety groups like police, fire and rescue workers who have had trouble communicating with each other during major crises like the September 11, 2001, attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
The bill would offer up to $1 billion in grants to help emergency personnel get interoperable communications systems.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan)