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Bill proposes new deadline for digital TV

All the nation's TVs must be outfitted to receive digital broadcasts by April 7, 2009, according to a draft Senate bill.

All television sets in American households must air digital-only broadcasts by spring of 2009, according to a draft Senate bill slated for consideration next week.

The five-page draft, which has been circulating this week, calls for a "hard date" of April 7, 2009, by which broadcasters must abandon the analog spectrum. That's slightly later than the Jan. 1 mark lawmakers had suggested during hearings convened by the Senate Commerce Committee this summer. That committee plans to take up the measure at a mark-up session on Wednesday.

Under current law, the switch must occur on Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85 percent of American households are able to receive the digital broadcasts--whichever comes first.

By one consumer group's count, as many as 80 million television sets rely on analog signals, and would need to be wired for digital cable or have not been outfitted with "set-top boxes" designed to convert digital signals back to analog. But 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. Converter boxes are expected to cost about $50, according to industry estimates.

But in Hurricane Katrina's wake, lawmakers have been especially vocal about the need to set a hard transition date sooner than later, citing concerns about lack of available spectrum for first responders, who conduct their emergency communications on the analog side.

The government plans to set aside some of the available airwaves for emergency communications and to auction off the rest--as a federal fundraiser of sorts--to commercial wireless companies.

Mobile industry representatives testifying at the summer committee hearing said they hoped to buy spectrum and use it to create more affordable, widespread wireless broadband networks. That's because the analog spectrum is located at a lower frequency, which, by nature, allows signals to travel in a straighter line and, at least in theory, longer distances.

Licenses to use the newly freed-up spectrum would be put up for sale beginning Jan. 28, 2008, according to the draft proposal. Of the money raised, $4.8 billion would have to be transferred to the general Treasury fund by Oct. 2, 2009, to offset other federal expenses or tax cuts.

Other proceeds would go to a fund specially designated for subsidizing the cost of digital-to-analog converter boxes, converting low-power TV stations from analog to digital, and "providing systems to coastal states affected by hurricanes and other disasters."

That fund would also bankroll programs to implement the Enhance 911 Act of 2004. That measure calls for upgrades to emergency call center answering points so that they can access the "enhanced" 911 network, which is able to pinpoint a caller's geographic location.

The digital switchover also has received a ringing endorsement from a group of high-tech industry leaders, including Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.