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House Commerce Approves DTV Bill - Broadcasting & Cable

House Commerce Approves DTV Bill

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Republicans were pushing affirmative action while Democrats were decrying higher taxes and the sort of government "takings" of private property that have conservatives in a dither of late.

No it was not Lewis Carroll's take on the Hill, but the contentious beginnings of a mark-up of the House Commerce Committee's version of the DTV transition bill, which would set a hard date of Jan. 1, 2009, and set the rules of the road for DTV carriage by broadcasters and multichannel video providers.

The bill as hurriedly passed (see below) sets a Jan. 1, 2009 hard date and provides $830 for a first-come, first served digital converter box subsidy.

The Democrats were twice defeated, on generally party-line votes--on attempts to increase the House bill's subsidy for digital-to-analog converters.

The Democrats on the committee wanted to boost the subsidy from $990 million ($830 million after administrative costs) to $3.5-$4 billion so that it would cover all $60 of the cost of the box. The base bill covers $40, and would apply to all viewers. It also caps the subsidy at the first 10.3 million households to apply, with a limit of two coupons per household.

The Democrats also wanted to send the coupons to everybody, while the Republicans want a several-step process that will select only for those who take the "affirmative action" of asking for the boxes, and thus presumably really need them.

Democrats say that process will favor individuals who are comfortable giving information to the government and understand the process; in turn, they say, it could work against poor, minority and elderly populations who make up the majority of analog-only viewers.

The Democratic alternative would also have put all the money into communications-related efforts, with nothing left over for the general treasury.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who co-sponsored the amendment, said that without a subsidy that covered everyone, the January 2009 hard date would be untenable, suggesting, as did his amendment, that the date be moved to April to match the Senate bill.

Also twice defeated was an attempt to set aside $5.8 billion of the proceeds from spectrum auction sales into a trust fund to pay for interoperable equipment for police and fire emergency communications. Though as a seperate amendment from the subsidy issue, it failed on a 24-24 tie vote (an amendment needs a majority, even if it is only of one).

Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said that he reluctantly opposed the bill. Republicans and Democrats alike are loathe to appear to oppose money for emergency communications (see below).

Upton pointed out that he had bipartisan support for an amendment he was planning to introduce that would set aside $500 million for first responder communications. That amendment later passed unanimously.

Fellow Michigander and ranking Democrat John Dingell called that "woefully inadequate," but Upton assured the Democrats that "everybody would be smiling" after they conferenced with the Senate on first-responder funding.

The Senate DTV bill, passed last week, set aside $1 billion, and Upton suggested his $500 million would increase during that conference. but he said $5.8 billion was too much, and his colleagues agreed.

As expected, the key issue appeared to be the size and scope for the converter box subsidy. The boxes will allow analog-only sets to still get a signal after broadcasters switch to all-digital broadcasting and return their analog spectrum for auction by the government, which is where the dollars the committee is doling out will come from.

Estimates range from $10 billion in auction revenues to as much as $28 billion.

The tax the Democrats opposed was the "TV tax" on the poor and elderly that the subsidy would represent if it only covered $40 of $60 and only those first-come, first served viewers.

Markey also argued that rendering 70 million sets inoperable was a government takings" that required full restitution.

Among the amendments that did make it onto the bill included:

1) one that would require the FCC to study how it could reallocate some of the reclaimed broadcast spectrum going to first responders so that it could accommodate wireless broadband use;

2) one that would allow TV translators, which boost signals to rural areas, to continue to broadcast in analog beyond the hard date, and to set aside $3 million to allow those translators to convert a digital signal to analog for that purpose; and
3) one, proposed by Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.), that would direct $5 million of the $160 million in administrative costs for the subsidy into a public outreach program and would insure that satellite companies like EchoStar and DirecTV abide by the same DTV carriage rules as cable.

4) A $3 million subsidy for TV translators, which wil be allowed to broadcast in analog beyond the hard date cut-off, and will need the money to be retrofit to convert the all-DTV signals to analog for its mostly rural audience.

As they did in opening statements the previous day, Democrats continued to characterize the limited subsidy as a tax on the poor to support tax cuts for the rich, while Republicans framed it as a responsible public-private partnership, and the Democrats tack as a give-away with no accountability or governor on abuses.

The base bill allows cable to downconvert a broadcasters' HDTV signal to standard definition.

Defeated was an amendment, introduced by Rick Boucher (D-Va.), that would have required cable systems that did that to inform viewers with a 15-second on-screen advisory unless they could convince the FCC that capacity limitations had prompted the downconversion. The vote was 31 to 16 against.

Another amendment that passed gives New York TV stations $30 million to help them meet the 2009 hard date for the DTV transition. Those stations were devastated by 9/11 and have recieved various waivers of DTV deadlines as a result.

The amendment was introduced by Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who had intially planned to ask for a waiver for those stations of a hard date, but other broadcasters argued that would unfairly disadvantage them by allowing those stations to be the only analog outlets for viewers who were slow to convert.

But wait, there's more. As members dispensed with bill desriptions and Barton went in to parliamentary overdrive so they could make a dinner honoring Dingell, one amendment on unlicensed devices was passed, while another was withdraw. 

The one that made it onto the bill would directs the FCC to complete its "white spaces" proceeding on whether to provide unlicensed spectrum to advanced wireless devices in the spaces between licensed allocations. But Markey withdrew an amendment that would have expressly set aside 6 mHz for unlicensed services.
Even so, Barton said there was merit in the Markey proposal, support for it in the marketplace, and maybe it could be addressed in conference, "but not now."
There is still a long haul before any of the provisions passed gets into law.

After the bill is voted out of Commerce, it goes to the budget committee, which will combine it with other spending recommendations and mark up that bill next week, with a floor vote the following week.

The senate budget bill, with its DTV component, was expected to be marked up in that budget committee Wednesday and should get a floor vote in the next couple of weeks. After that the differences in those two huge bills must be reconciled in conference.

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