That deadline was suggested in a pair of hearings here Tuesday by members of the U.S. Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
The committee is readying legislation expected this year that would require all American televisions to run on digital signals by the end of 2008. That would free up the analog, or 700 MHz, spectrum for other uses such as broadband services and communications for emergency workers.
Lawmakers are readying legislation that would require all American televisions to run on digital signals by the end of 2008, in an effort to free up the analog spectrum for other uses such as broadband services and communications for emergency workers.
A slew of unanswered questions about the transition promises to keep politicians sparring for months. Among them: Will households with only analog TVs be given digital converter boxes? Who will pick up the tab? And how many homes still rely solely on broadcast TV?
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the proposed transition "the most critical communications issue facing the 109th Congress."
"The bombings last week in London reinforced the immediate need for this spectrum," McCain said, noting that Scotland Yard had to "borrow spectrum" in order to meet its needs.
Under current law, analog television would be cut off on Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85 percent of households are capable of receiving digital signals, whichever comes sooner. Last month, the Federal Communications Commission proposed to move up to March 2006 the date by which all televisions with screen sizes of 25 to 36 inches must contain digital tuners. All televisions, VCRs and DVD players would have to carry the technology by 2007.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, suggested that Congress should set another "hard date" after which it would be illegal to sell analog TV sets in the United States.
The transition to digital TV would hit hardest people who rely solely on analog-based televisions--that is, "over the air" broadcasts received with an antenna. Those viewers would have to purchase televisions equipped with digital tuners or digital-to-analog "set-top" conversion boxes to place atop their analog televisions.
All of the industries represented on the panels, ranging from cable to satellite to broadcast to electronics manufacturers, testified that they are ready to make the shift at the end of 2008. But they're still arguing over the details.
A basic conversion box is expected to cost $50 by 2009, said Michael Kennedy, a senior vice president for Motorola. (Analog consumers may not have to foot the entire bill if the government provides subsidies from tax revenues or some other source.)
Michael Calabrese, vice president and director of the wireless future program at the New America Foundation, urged the government to issue subsidies or rebates, funded by revenue from auctioning off freed-up chunks of the analog spectrum.
But Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said $50 seemed to be a high figure for the units, and that they may cost as little as $35 or $40. "A $50 converter box is really not a lot," he said, adding, "I believe we can have some kind of a program, though I'm not sure what it will look like, for those low-income people who say they need a subsidy."
Nationwide, only about 12 percent of primary television sets and 14 percent of other household televisions would require the conversion boxes, said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents mostly U.S. electronics manufacturers. Shapiro noted that digital TV sales are setting records each quarter and said his association expected 86 percent of American homes to have digital tuners by the cut-off date.
But Gene Kimmelman, senior director of public policy and advocacy for the Consumers Union, argued that Congress should not take the percentage lightly. "By our count, there are 80 million sets out there that could go black," he said.
Options: Cable, satellite
Not all televisions would need the conversion boxes. DirecTV satellite customers already have a digital-to-analog converter included in their monthly service, said Richard Slenker, the company's vice president. Cable customers should see no disruption in service, cable companies say, if their technicians are permitted to use a method called down-conversion. In that process, the cable companies re-engineer their signals at the source, or "head-end," so that the conversion to analog happens along the cable wires and no conversion box is necessary.
"Give us the flexibility to down-convert," said Kyle McSlarrow, CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and the transition will be "seamless." Patrick Knorr, vice chairman of the American Cable Association, which represents smaller companies, estimated that the upgrade would cost $4,500 per head-end for the company and nothing extra for the subscriber.
But broadcasters don't like the idea of down-conversion, because they fear cable companies will use it to reduce the quality of local broadcast channels or drop certain channels entirely. They want Congress to require that cable companies transmit all of their channels' streams, not simply the analog ones, which current law requires.
"If these channels are not reaching cable and satellite subscribers, Telemundo and other Spanish language broadcasters will be unable to attract sufficient advertisers," testified Manuel Abud, vice president and general manager of KVEA-TV in Los Angeles, on behalf of the Spanish language network Telemundo.
Cable companies, in return, argue that meeting the broadcasters' demands would occupy space on their frequencies that could have been used to host other technologies such as high-speed links or voice over Internet protocol.
On the other side of the coin, panelists touted the benefits of freeing up the analog spectrum for emergency personnel and new broadband technology.
Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Association of Chiefs of Police's communications and technology committee, said access to the analog spectrum was critical to "relieve congestion" on the frequencies currently used by first responders.
Others looked forward to using the spectrum to provide wireless broadband, because signals on the 700 MHz frequency have the potential to travel farther and in a straighter line. "You can go out and build a rural broadband network at one-third the cost if you go into the TV band," Calabrese, of the New America Foundation, said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, released a statement on Tuesday announcing that later this week, she will introduce a bill called the Low Power Digital Television Transition Assistance Act, which will focus on "giving translator and low power analog stations more time to transition, along with grants to ease the cost."
In the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, pledged in a statement to work with the Senate to approve legislation this year: "Establishing a firm deadline will help ensure that police and firefighters meet their critical communications needs, that consumers receive the benefits of next-generation wireless broadband services and that Congress further reduces the deficit."
No draft bill for the digital television transition has surfaced yet.