It looks as though New Years Day 2009 will definitely be D-Day for the cutoff of analog-TV service.
At a hearing on draft digital-TV legislation Thursday, House Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said the "discussion draft" had room for negotiation on numerous points, but the Dec. 31, 2008, cutoff date is "pretty much frozen."
Barton also said he would support a limited, means-tested subsidy for digital converter boxes to low-income analog viewers, although no subsidy was in the draft.
The hearing was not on a bill, per se, but on a draft of a bill because the committee members failed to agree on one.
Rep Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said the committee was able to agree on the need to bring the DTV transition to a conclusion and that a hard date was needed to do that. They also agreed on the need to return frequencies for use by emergency communications and new broadband wireless services.
"Notwithstanding that accord," he said, what could not be resolved were any new public interest obligations, multicast must-carry, cable's downconversion of DTV for analog subscribers, and how to treat consumers fairly when the government renders their analog TV's "inoperable."
The key consumer fairness issue and a point of wide divergence among the members is a government subsidy for converter boxes to allow disenfranchised analog-only sets to operate in the digital age.
Some legislators want a subsidy for all 73 million analog sets, including second or third analog-only sets in cable and satellite homes, regardless of income. They point out that auction of the reclaimed analog spectrum could raise as much as $30 billion, against which a subsidy of $3.7 billion ($50 per converter box for all 73 million analog-only sets) would be doable with plenty left over for the treasury. Others argue that with proper notification that the switch is coming, no subsidy may be necessary.
Because it involves billions to the treasury from an analog spectrum auction, the DTV bill is tied to a budget reconcilliation bill. Several legislators backing the subsidy warned that telcom policy was in danger of being trumped by budget concerns, and argued that the first dollars--potentially to the last--should go to covering subsidy before any other budgetary claims were put on it.
But whether it is a subsidy or sufficient notification, all seemed in agreement that the analog cut-off could become a political land mine if not handled correctly.
Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) suggested that if a DTV hard date bill passed Tuesday "we would all be impeached Wednesday."
While several legislators have latched onto the "new third rail" metaphor for the "untouchability" of TV service, Inslee invoked Jim Croce in offering a new one (this is a close paraphrase): "You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind, you don't pull the mask on that old Lone Ranger, and you don't take away people's TV service"
Democrat Edolphus Towns of New York had an amendment to that: You don't let others steal it, either. Towns said he would work to have language introduced to the bill empowering the FCC to mandate the broadcast flag technology that protects digital content from widespread piracy. The court threw out the FCC's broadcast flag rule, saying it had no authority to impose it.
Fellow New York Democrat Eliot Engel shared that concern over protecting digital content, pointing out that bootlegged digital copy of the new Star Wars movie was available online simultaneously with its theatrical release and on DVD soon after.
Ranking committee Democrat John Dingell (Mich.) said the bill must address two questions answered: 1) "Why should ordinary citizens pay more because of a governmental decision that makes their television sets obsolete?" and 2) "Why can't the proceeds from the sale of spectrum, which is a public good, be used to reimburse citizens for their transition costs and for other important telecommunications and public safety needs?"
Barton said he expected the DTV bill to be part of a larger budget reconciliation package sent to the budget committee by September, and that it would become law by the end of the year.