Sen Ted Stevens plans to unveil his version of DTV transition legislation by the end of June and predicts he can quickly move the bill though the Senate, reconcile his bill with a separate version in the House and have a final bill ready for the President's signature in October.
"There will be very little controversy," Stevens, the head of the Senate Commerce Committee, told Washington communications lawyers Monday.
Stevens told the Federal Communications Bar Association he can draft a bill with bipartisan consensus and wide industry support because of information he and fellow Commerce Committee Co-Chairman Daniel Inouye are gleaning from a series of "listening sessions" they and their staffs are conducting with TV industry executives and other affected parties. Stevens predicted his bill will be similar to draft DTV legislation floated by his counterpart at the House Commerce Commerce committee, Rep. Joe Barton.
Like Barton's draft, Stevens predicts his legislation would call for a "hard" deadline of Jan. 1, 2009, to cut off broadcasters' old analog signals and require stations to operate digital-only.
He also said Congress must make sure all Americans can obtain converters necessary to keep their old analog TV sets working when broadcasters go all-digital.
Stevens said he has not decided how a converter program should work or how much money the federal government should kick in to subsidize the cost of boxes because he wants to make sure the cost of the program--which could range from $500 million to somewhere in the billions depending how many viewers receive subsidies doesn't exceed the amount raised from auctioning reclaimed analog channels. (The funds for subsidizing set top boxes is expected to come from a portion of the auction's proceeds.)
Stevens also said he would like Congress to approve a standard local franchise that would allow Bell phone companies to roll out video without the need for lengthy franchise negotiations with each municipal government.
A national approach would be preferable even to the alternative the Bells have been trying, which is to obtain statewide franchises rather than seek separate ones from 30,000 local governments. "We ought to have some kind of national solution," he said.
But Cheryl Leanza, telecommunications counsel for the National League of Cities, said she hopes to take advantage of Stevens' listening sessions to persuade him not to diminish municipal governments' powers to negotiate terms of local franchises.
Because of familiarity with their communities, cities are better positioned to set buildout terms that prevent "redlining," the serving of upper income areas without providing adequate service to lower income neighborhoods, she said. "Cities have been instrumental in ensuring that competition comes to all Americans."