Stevens Defends Subsidy, Hard Date

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Thursday is "votorama" day in the Senate, with at least 18 amendments related to budget reconciliation slated for an up or down nod.

Included will be proposals to amend the DTV transition portion by cutting funding to the DTV converter-box subsidy, introduced by Senator John Ensign (R-Nev.), and to move the hard date from April 2009 to April 2008, offered by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). A similar McCain amendment was defeated in the Commerce Committee markup of the bill.

During floor debate on those amendments Wednesday, Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) argued against both, saying that cutting the subsidy from $3 billion to $1 billion, or to about what the House Commerce Committee approved in its DTV bill, would not leave enough money to cover those who need the digital-to-analog converter boxes to continue to get over-the-air TV after the transition to all-digital.

He also said that some of the money may even have to go toward buying TV sets for victims of Katrina and Wilma who can't afford to replace them, a new wrinkle in the argument for the subsidy.

Stevens said the subsidy issue should be hammered out in conference between the House and Senate bills, where other issues like the need to replace TV sets, could be considered.

In opposing the McCain effort, now years long, to move up the transition date, Stevens said that advancing the date would mean that fewer DTV sets would have been sold, meaning more people would need the subsidy. But it would also mean that the spectrum would be less valuable and bring in less money at auction to help pay for that subsidy.
He also said that would move the date to only two months after the January 2008 auction date, which he said would be a logistical impossiblity.

The 2009 hard date, Stevens said, would allow for enough money to contribute to interoperablility costs for new fire and police communications systems, the hot-button issue.

McCain's argument has been that the analog spectrum should be reclaimed as soon as possible so that first responders can use some of it to improve their communications systems, whose deficits have been obvious since 9/11 and were put in the spotlight again by the recent hurricanes.

A vote on the amendments was expected by mid-afternoon Thursday.

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