Date Set for Digital TV Transition

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have approved a large budget reconciliation bill which, among many other things, sets a February 19, 2009 deadline for broadcasters to stop analog TV broadcasts and move to digital television.

The final version of the bill includes as much as $1.5 billion in funding to provide up to two $40 vouchers per U.S. household toward the purchase of digital-to-analog set-top converter devices. The converters enable existing analog televisions to receive and display over-the-air digital broadcasts, albeit at picture quality equivalent to existing analog television rather than (typically) higher definition digital television.

The legislation also directs the FCC to begin auctioning off the 700 MHz frequency spectrum band currently used for analog television broadcasts beginning January 28, 2008. The spectrum is of particular interest for emergency service operations, as well as for providing new mobile broadband and video services, including long-range, high-speed Internet access in rural areas. The auction is expected to raise $10 to $30 billion.

Broadcasters are currently required to cease analog broadcasts at the end of 2006 in markets where 85 percent of homes can receive digital signals. Virtually no U.S. markets are expected to be ready to switch off analog transmission that soon, and both critics and industry groups have repeatedly urged that a transition to digital television will only occur with a hard, federally-mandated deadline.