WASHINGTON — Analog TV signals will very likely end at midnight Dec. 31, 2008. That may be the only certainty to emerge from a congressional hearing on the transition to digital television.
The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet took testimony Thursday concerning draft text of a DTV transition bill submitted by the Republican majority. The subcommittee had failed to deliver an actual bill because negotiations between Republicans and Democrats over certain provisions broke down last week.
During the hearing, subcommittee members and almost a dozen witnesses alternately praised and faulted the draft text on several points. Main point of contention was the need for a subsidy to help consumers afford the federally mandated transition. After the analog cutoff date, analog TV sets will go blank unless connected to a cable or satellite system, which can convert digital signals to analog, or to an digital-to-analog converter box, estimated to cost about $50. Approximately 20 million U.S. households — with 73 million analog sets — currently rely exclusively on over-the-air signals.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), ranking minority member on the subcommittee, outlined the points of agreement between the two parties.
“We both want a timely conclusion to the transition and the setting of a hard date,” Markey said.
Both sides also want to auction the analog spectrum, after it is returned, to generate revenue to put toward the budget deficit, he added. “And we both want a consumer education campaign” about the coming transition.
Both also agreed that, whatever the details of the final bill, Congress had better manage the transition in a highly consumer-friendly way. Otherwise, as a member noted, “We’ll find ourselves with a rebellion that makes the Whiskey Rebellion look like a tea party.”
Markey also noted the disagreements over issues including public interest obligations, must-carry multicast and cable downconversion of DTV signals for analog subscribers — provisions both sides had discussed but which the majority omitted from the draft.
But Markey and fellow Democrats expressed greatest dismay over the lack of a subsidy. “It would be like the government turning off your phone, then saying they’ll turn it back on if you send in 50 bucks,” Markey said.
Inspired by Jim Croce, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) declared, “There are some things you just don’t do. You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask of the Lone Ranger, and you don’t take away people’s TV.”
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the overall Energy and Commerce Committee, said he was open to a means-tested subsidy for low-income households, estimated to number 10 million. Providing $50 converter boxes to those homes would cost the government about $500 million. Democrats favor a subsidy for all over-the-air reliant sets, which would cost about $3.7 billion. They argued that the auction of the analog spectrum, estimated to generate at least $10 billion and possibly as much as $28 billion, would more than cover the full cost.
But Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) disputed the need for any subsidy. In a single year consumers would have $50 to buy a converter if they saved “just 14¢ a day,” he said.
The auction is the reason Barton wants to quickly reach enough accord with Democrats to generate a bill: He plans to submit the bill with the larger budget reconciliation package Congress will take up in September. But several Democrats questioned whether Barton may as a result give DTV legislation short shrift.
“We should not rush a bill … simply because of budget or other artificial pressures,” said Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee. “It is because of the budget pressures in 1997 that we are still struggling to complete the digital transition the right way. Sound telecommunications policy cannot be achieved when a bill is being crafted for budget purposes.”
Barton signaled his willingness to negotiate where possible, saying that the draft text “is an evolving document. We’re not saying, ‘This is what the legislation is going to be.’ Hopefully, we’ll set some parameters here.” But the 2008 hard date, he said, “is probably frozen.”