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Senate Panel Approves Bill to Finish TV’s Transition From Analog to Digital

By Stephen Labaton


A Senate panel approved legislation on Thursday to complete the slow transition from analog to digital television by 2009, a change of enormous importance to the television, cable and wireless telephone industries.

The legislation, cleared by the Senate Commerce Committee by a vote of 19-3, has gained considerable momentum because it could raise billions of dollars for a depleted federal treasury from auctions for the spectrum licenses that would be surrendered by broadcasters.

Emergency workers have been heavily lobbying for the legislation so they can have better communications during disasters like Hurricane Katrina. And the lawmakers are being pressed by industry, most notably wireless phone companies, to accelerate the transition to auction off the spectrum licenses so that the carriers can expand phone and wireless Internet services.

Equipment makers also see the legislation as a possible bonanza because it would prompt consumers and subscription television services to buy upgrades. It also offers the hope of encouraging greater use of wireless online services.

But the bill faces considerable political obstacles, as the various industries squabble over its terms. A significant issue is how to pay for the technology needed to prevent an estimated 70 million to 80 million television sets from being rendered obsolete once broadcasters no longer provide analog programs.

Those are the sets that do not rely on subscription services provided by cable and satellite companies. The matter is so politically sensitive that lawmakers set April 7, 2009, as the legislation’s effective date. (Not coincidentally, that is one day after the widely watched Final Four NCAA basketball tournament.)

The legislation approved by the committee was sponsored by its Republican chairman, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii. The three Democratic senators who voted against the measure were Barbara Boxer of California, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

It would provide $3 billion for owners of those sets to buy converter boxes that would let them receive digital signals. A similar bill, expected to be considered soon in the House, is likely to try to trim that amount, congressional aides said.

The measure moves to the Senate Budget Committee, where it could be considered as early as next week, before being introduced on the floor.

The legislation is the latest measure in a decades-long push toward digital transmission, which would make more efficient use of the communications spectrum and enable broadcasters to offer better-quality pictures as well as the prospect of interactivity.

As part of the transition, the government gave the broadcasters use of frequencies for both digital and analog transmission, and policymakers want to accelerate the process to get back the analog portion to sell in the market.