Bill blocking analog auction clears panel

WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans in a House Telecommunications subcommittee split along party lines in a 13-12 vote Tuesday that would allow TV stations to broadcast both an analog and a digital TV channel until 95% of the homes in their local markets made the switch to digital TV.

The measure would have the likely effect of delaying any auction of broadcasters’ current channels until well beyond 2002, when Congressional budgeteers would like to sell the airwaves. Federal bean counters are counting on the sale to raise at least $5.4 billion to offset the federal deficit.

The proposal is scheduled for a full committee vote today, where it’s passage is expected by a similar close margin, and then proceed to the House floor. It is part of a package of legislation designed to raise approximately $20 billion from spectrum auctions. The legislation falls short of the full $26 billion budgeteers would like to squeeze from spectrum auctions during the next six years.

White House opposed

As early as next year, broadcasters will begin transmitting a digital TV signal in addition to their current analog TV channel. Under a plan supported by the Clinton administration, broadcasters and the rest of consumers would spend the next nine years making the transition to digital television.

But after 2006, according to the White House plan, the analog signal would be shut down forever, rendering all current TV sets obsolete. By forcing a speedy transition to digital technology, the administration hopes to reclaim the analog channels the broadcasting industry now use and sell them at auction.

But under the proposal approved Tuesday, the government could not reclaim the analog channel until 95% of viewers secured digital TV sets or converters that would allow a regular TV to display a digital signal. The decision to turn off the analog channel would be made on a market-by-market basis.

Critics of the broadcasting industry claimed Tuesday that the measure was an effort by broadcasters to keep both the digital and analog channels in perpetuity.

“The strategy is that they never want to give it back,” said Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project, adding, “This is basically an effort to buy time for a legislative environment to fix this once and for all.”

In an effort to speed the digital TV transition at the consumer level, Markey unsuccessfully proposed an amendment that would require all TV sets made in 2001 and later to have the ability to receive and display a digital signal.

Markey argued that forcing set makers to include digital TV technology in sets is the only hope to reach Congress’ goal of completing the transition to digital TV in 2006. His proposal was defeated 20-6.

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