DTV Date Still 2009, Says Stevens

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Commerce Committee Chairman Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), told broadcasters Wednesday that he still backed a 2009 hard date for return of analog spectrum, but was now primarily concerned with keeping the auction money from that spectrum from being commandeered for non-communications-related Katrina costs.

Stevens said the bill establishing that hard date would be marked up Oct. 19, though he said he did not yet have a bill to show anyone or any details. But he reiterated that it would have to be free of anything not tied to the budget.

The DTV issues not in the hard-date bill, which could range from multicast must-carry to cable downconversion of the digital signal to use of DTV spectrum by unlicensed devices, will be addressed in a separate bill that Stevens said would be introduced as a companion to the hard-date bill.

The DTV transition hard-date bill deals with analog spectrum that will be returned for auctions expected to bring billions to the treasury. As such, it must be included in a budget allocation bill that, by Senate rules, cannot deal with other legislative issues.

Stevens said that he had been told by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin that the commision could be ready with regs and DTV channel assignments by 2007, but reiterated his preference for a 2009 date.

"With a 2009 hard date, there would be three Christmas buying seasons during which Americans will buy digital television sets....The later the hard date is, the more digital televisions people will have bought on their own, and fewer set top boxes, obviously, will be needed," he said. "And, the fewer the set top boxes, obviously, the less subsidy will be required. In addition, by providing time for manufacturers to gear up the production lines and achieve economies of scale, the price of the box will likely be less."

Stevens said he and commerce Co-chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) had decided that it would not to bifurcate the transition by requiring an earlier return of spectrum by stations in the portion of the FM band outside of the core DTV channels that is being handedover to first responders.

While he recognized the need to get that spectrum for emergency communications, "we concluded that a transition that differed from market to market would be most confusing to consumers. And, after meeting with a wide variety of public safety experts, our Committee learned that in many cases, the devices, particularly radios, which will use the abandoned analog TV spectrum, have not been engineered yet."

Stevens said one of the biggest problems he now faced was trying to keep that $10 billion for transition-related costs, including the subsidy and funding better local 911 communications, rather than have it applied to the cost of Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, estimated in the hundreds of billions.

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