House sets digital TV transition for Feb. 2009

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache

All American households would have to ensure their televisions can receive all-digital broadcasts by Feb. 17, 2009, under a last-minute compromise reached by U.S. House of Representatives and Senate politicians during the weekend.

The House approved the deadline as part of a broader budget bill that passed by a slim 212 to 206 margin early Monday morning. The Senate must still approve the measure before it becomes law.

By 2009, only about 7 percent of television viewers--still several million--will be relying solely on analog, "over-the-air" broadcasts, according to Consumer Electronics Association estimates. The bulk of TV viewers rely on cable or satellite services, which intend to take care of reformatting their programs for digital viewing.

The bill allocates $990 million to $1.5 billion for a subsidy program that would permit those whose TVs still rely on analog broadcasts to request up to two $40 coupons for digital-to-analog converter boxes.

Since Hurricane Katrina, politicians have revved up the pressure to set a hard date for the transition, arguing that emergency responders desperately need the spectrum freed up by dropping all analog broadcasts. The approved bill also sets aside $1 billion for emergency officials to buy new equipment.

The government plans to auction the remainder of the analog spectrum to companies hoping to deploy new, more affordable broadband technologies.