Digital television by 2009, Stevens says

President Bush could receive a digital-television transition bill by October, according to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Stevens, addressing the Federal Communications Bar Association on Monday, reported that his committee is working on legislation that would parallel the bill drafted by House Commerce Committee staff last month. Stevens said he hopes for a bill to pass the Senate in July so that it could move out of conference by the early fall.

In 1996, Congress created a “soft date” of Dec. 31, 2006, for transition to digital television broadcasts and the return of the analog spectrum to the federal government. The date would be extended for markets in which more than 15 percent of households could not receive digital signals, effectively exempting most locales.

Stevens suggested Jan. 1, 2009, as the new “hard date” for the transition, one day later than the Barton proposal. Kevin Schweers, a spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, explained that “it shouldn't take more than a minute to figure out what a day is worth.”

Real contention could arise, however, between House and Senate negotiators over subsidizing set-top converters. The $50 boxes enable analog televisions to receive the digital over-the-air signals, negating the 15 percent issue.

Stevens is working on a program to subsidize converters for the “many people who cannot afford to replace” their analog televisions immediately. The House bill does not contain such a provision, the cost of which has been estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Stevens predicted that dealings within the Senate Commerce Committee would move smoothly, though. Stevens told the audience that by working with ranking member Dan Inouye (D-Hawaii), a close friend of his, he does “not expect to have the kind of partisan rancor that’s occurred in the past on this committee.”