The U.S. Senate voted Nov. 3 to set April 7, 2009, as the deadline for U.S. television stations to switch to digital broadcasts and free up analog radio spectrum for wireless broadband and public-safety uses.
The Senate approved the digital-television (DTV) transition deadline as part of a large budget package aimed at reducing the federal deficit. Auctioning off part of the freed-up spectrum is expected to raise $10 billion or more, with $5 billion going to the U.S. treasury in the Senate legislation. In addition, the measure is expected to provide additional spectrum to emergency response agencies, who need it to improve their communications.
In October, a House of Representatives committee set Dec. 31, 2008, as the DTV transition deadline. Negotiators would have to iron out the differences in the two bills before a DTV deadline becomes law.
Supporters of a hard deadline say first responders such as police and firefighters need additional spectrum to improve interoperability between the multiple emergency response agencies in metropolitan areas. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks on the U.S., the national 9/11 Commission recommended that emergency responders should have additional radio spectrum. In many cases, the multiple emergency-response agencies responding to the Sept. 11 attacks couldn’t communicate with each other because their radios operated on different spectrum bands.
Under current law, broadcasters are required to give up their analog spectrum by the end of 2006, but only in television markets where 85 percent of homes can receive digital signals. While cable-television service can convert digital signals for analog sets, some estimates say there are tens of millions of analog TV sets that receive signals over the air. Those sets won’t work after the DTV transition without converter boxes.
In December 1997, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to reallocate some frequencies in the 700MHz band to public safety and new commercial uses, in exchange for the digital spectrum TV stations received. Most television markets would never reach the 85 percent digital threshold now in law without a hard DTV deadline, critics say.
Also on Thursday, the FCC moved up by four months, to March 1, 2007, the deadline that all TVs sold in the U.S. must be capable of receiving digital signals. The FCC has phased in deadlines for large TV sets to be digital ready; all TV sets with screens larger than 36 inches were required to be digital ready by July 1 of this year.
— Grant Gross