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Chris Llana, Editor


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Congress Passes DTV Bill (finally)

February 1, 2006

The House of Representatives today passed the budget bill as modified in December by the Senate, thereby taking the DTV Transition legislation one step closer to final enactment. That will happen when the President puts his signature on the piece of paper.

The press release that Representative Barton issued to mark House passage of the bill makes it painfully clear that there will be no supplemental consumer education legislation. They have all thrown in the towel to special interest lobbying.

In his press release, Barton makes the empty claim that the legislation "includes a strong consumer education measure." He is apparently making reference to the $5 million allocated to the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for possible consumer education on the transition and the availability of a government subsidy for digital-to-analog converter boxes (a program that doesn't start until 2008). The NTIA has neither the staff nor the regulatory authority nor the inclination to mount an effective consumer education campaign.

As I have noted before, Barton's House DTV legislation had contained labeling requirements for analog TVs and specific mandates for the broadcast industry to air public service announcements about the DTV transition. All of those requirements were stripped out of the bill in the Senate-House conference committee.

It is interesting to note that at least three high-level government digital TV staffers (one in the Senate and two at the FCC) have in the last couple of months moved over to industry lobbying/legal positions.

So where does that leave us?

The FCC has said that it would address labeling requirements in a future DTV rulemaking action (it's been putting off action for years), but the time frame on that would put any proposed requirements out to the end of 2006 at the earliest. That is, if the FCC finds the political will to impose such requirements.

No, it looks like the American public will continue to unwittingly buy obsolete analog-only TVs through March 2007, when all TVs will finally be required to incorporate digital tuners.

The following is an edited copy of Barton's partisan self-congratulatory press release (with references to the Medicaid portions of the legislation deleted).

Congress Approves Medicaid Reform, Digital TV Bill; Legislation Now Awaits Bush's Signature

New Reports Highlight the Benefits of Medicaid Reform

WASHINGTON - The U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday gave final approval to historic reforms to save Medicaid and to bring television into the digital age, legislation crafted by the Energy and Commerce Committee under U.S. Rep. Joe Barton's chairmanship.

On a 216-214 vote, the House passed the legislation (S. 1932) for a second time due to the delaying tactics of some Senate Democrats. The digital television (DTV) provisions and the Medicaid restructuring were contained in a larger budget "reconciliation" bill that also reduced the national deficit.

"In June 2004, at my first DTV hearing since becoming chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, I announced that expediting the DTV transition would be a top priority," said Barton, R-Texas, on the House floor before the vote. "I also noted that the 85-percent loophole in current law has delayed the consumer benefits of digital television and preventing the clearing of very vital broadcast spectrum for critical public safety and wireless broadband uses.

"The DTV legislation brings needed certainty to allow consumers, broadcasters, cable and satellite operators, manufacturers, retailers, and government to prepare for the end of the transition," Barton said. "It includes a strong consumer education measure. And it helps ensure that all consumers have continued access to broadcast programming, regardless of whether they use analog or digital televisions, or whether they watch television signals broadcast by a local station or subscribe to pay-TV."

Barton has long argued that the bill "will mean enhanced television for millions of Americans, cutting-edge new services in the marketplace, and better communications capabilities for first responders."

"We now have three years to prepare for the transition," Barton has previously said about the bill. "That is more than enough time for manufacturers and retailers to move low-cost digital televisions and converter-boxes into the market, for the FCC to complete the channel allocation process, for broadcasters to finalize their digital facilities, and for government and industry to prepare consumers for the transition."

Specifically the DTV legislation:

* Establishes a February 17, 2009 hard deadline for the end of analog broadcasting, freeing critical spectrum for public safety and wireless broadband use, and is expected to generate at least $10 billion in auction revenues.

Authorizes the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to create a digital-to-analog converter box program to help over-the-air viewers continue to receive broadcast programming.

* The bill allocates up to $990 million for the program, which will enable households that make an affirmative request to receive by U.S. mail up to two, $40 converter-box coupons. This will help minimize participation by consumers who do not need a subsidized converter-box.

1. The NTIA may use up to $100 million of the $990 million for administrative costs. Up to $5 million of the administrative funds may be used to educate consumers about the digital television transition and the digital-to-analog converter-box program.

2. If NTIA certifies to Congress that it needs more money to fulfill the program, the overall amount available increases to up to $1.5 billion and the administrative amount available increases to up to $160 million.