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Despite Lag, Momentum Persists for Digital TV Switch

Legislation that mandates a deadline for the end of traditional television broadcasting may have slowed down from the fast track it seemed to be on earlier this year. But the lobbying hasn’t quieted at all.

The measure, a key issue for high-tech and public-safety advocates, would call for a firm date when broadcast stations stop airing programming in old-fashioned analog signals, replacing them with digital-only signals.

Some of the spectrum being phased out by the broadcasters would then be freed up for use by police and fire officials, while the rest would be auctioned off to private-sector businesses in a move that is expected to generate billions in revenue for the federal government.

Telecommunications lobbyist Greg Rohde, president of the firm e-Copernicus, said he sees the measure as a little stalled, but he added: “I don’t think it’s in trouble.”

On the lobbying side, he said, there is a lot of momentum for clearing the broadcasters off the spectrum.

Ralph Hellmann, chief lobbyist at the Information Technology Industry Council, said it’s clear that digital television (or DTV) legislation will be part of a budget reconciliation deal that could happen this fall — later than some had expected for the DTV measure.

“The fall is not that far away,” he said. “It’s worth waiting for and gives us an opportunity to make our case with rank-and-file Members and Senators and with the leadership.”

Rohde and Hellmann both said that, historically, reconciliation bills are politically contentious for lawmakers.

“The beauty of reconciliation is it’s a must-pass piece of legislation,” Hellmann said. “It’s a vehicle that is important and likely to get across the finish line.”

At the same time, Hellmann said, it’s also a vehicle that is “fraught with peril” because it is about saving money and doesn’t contain any “fun.” “There’s no candy in it,” he said.

Rohde added that he sees the extra time as a plus because it gives his side more time to lobby Members.

“The pressure is just going to get greater throughout the summer, not less,” Rohde said.

According to lobbyists and other news accounts, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) had wanted to hold a markup on a DTV bill last week, but House leadership officials urged him to wait.

The key sticking point over the bill has to do with providing subsidies to help TV viewers who rely on over-the-air broadcasters to purchase converter boxes that allow them to receive digital signals.

In a draft bill circulated by House Energy and Commerce Committee staff, the deadline for the switchover was set for December 2008.

The House panel does not have a DTV markup scheduled, but committee spokesman Kevin Schweers said, “We feel it’s important and the right thing to do to improve public safety, reduce the deficit, grow the economy and allow consumers and businesses to plan.”

Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said his group expects to see a bill setting a deadline to pass this year.

But, he said, “I think it’s become clear that there’s a lot of nervousness on the part of many Members of Congress, of the political ramifications of turning off as many as 73 million television sets overnight.”

He added: “We fully expect there will be a subsidy program that gets worked out by Congress and there will be a hard date. Our priority now is focusing on making sure cable companies don’t block consumer access to local TV programming” — another issue related to the DTV transition.

On the Senate side, Rohde said, “it’s been slow, but it is moving.”

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee had planned on a hearing before the July Fourth recess, but postponed it to hold a listening session with consumer groups. Now, the committee is planning a DTV hearing after the recess, but has not yet set a date, according to a committee spokeswoman.

Mary Greczyn, a spokeswoman for the High Tech DTV Coalition, an alliance of potential spectrum bidders that includes Microsoft, T-Mobile, the Business Software Alliance, Cisco Systems, IBM and Intel, said her group has focused on getting the word out to the public and soon is launching a Web site that will tout the public safety benefits of freeing up the spectrum.

“We have plans to focus on reaching out to in-district groups to focus on rural issues and public safety issues, so it’s not just an inside-the-Beltway advocacy effort,” she said.

The DTV legislation has been linked as a first step to a larger overhaul of the telecommunications laws. As for the telecom update, Rohde said, he suspects that any delay with the DTV legislation will also delay the larger measure.

But Barton “hopes to propose this summer a bipartisan bill to bring our nation’s communication laws into the Internet Age,” Schweers said.

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