House-Senate Conference Committee Approves Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act Title in Budget Reconciliation Bill

December 19, 2005

WASHINGTON, DC – A House-Senate Conference Committee yesterday approved the Budget Reconciliation conference report which includes the Digital Transition title. This title was negotiated by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which originally offered bills on the digital transition. The Senate version of the bill, the Digital Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005, was sponsored by Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Under its revised budget reconciliation instruction, the Senate Commerce Committee saves $7.363 billion for deficit reduction in the next five years, and spectrum auctions are considered to be the most viable method within the Commerce Committee’s jurisdiction to recover this revenue. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that auctions will raise a total of $10 billion, though several independent reports estimate that the auction would raise more than $20 billion. The title also extends auction authority to September 30, 2011.

The legislation establishes two specific dates that will advance the transition to a digital television (DTV) broadcast signal and improve public safety communications.

First, the Act requires broadcasters to vacate the analog portion of the public spectrum by February 17, 2009. From that date forward, public safety personnel will have access to the 24 MHz of spectrum recovered in the transition. Second, the legislation requires the auction of recovered spectrum by January 28, 2008.

“This conference report is another in a series of important steps to freeing up the necessary spectrum for our nation’s first responders,” said Chairman Stevens. “By providing our emergency response entities and broadcasters with a date certain for the digital transition, our first responders can move forward in ensuring that critical communication infrastructure is in place in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.” After $7.363 billion of revenue is transferred to the U.S. Treasury, the remaining funds raised from spectrum auctions will be allocated as follows:

1) $1.5 billion for a converter box subsidy program

2) $75 million for a program to transition Low Power TV stations and TV translators to digital

3) $1 billion for state and local interoperability grants

4) $156 million to fund programs in the WARN Act, which establishes national alert and tsunami warning systems

5) $43.5 million in funding to improve E-911 communications under the Enhance 911 legislation sponsored by Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) passed last year

6) $30 million available for the Essential Air Service program

7) $30 million to the Metropolitan Television Alliance, an organization of New York City broadcast stations, for additional digital broadcast equipment needed to provide an adequate digital signal from the Empire State building until the Freedom Tower is completed. As a result of the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers in connection with the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, there is no longer an adequate digital broadcast location to cover all of the New York metropolitan area.

“With the spectrum auctions expected to raise more than $10 billion, the Congress has succeeded in finding a vital balance between the needs of first responders and consumers,” said Chairman Stevens. “The $1 billion allocated for interoperability infrastructure will provide responders with the equipment essential to ensuring public safety in times of crisis. In addition, the $1.5 billion set aside for the converter box program makes certain that Americans will not be left in the dark in 2009 when the digital transition is completed.”

Specifically, the legislation provides up to $1.5 billion for a program to subsidize Americans' purchase of converter boxes allowing analog television sets to continue working after the digital transition in 2009. The bill provides for an initial sum of $990 million for subsidies and an additional $510 million after the Department of Commerce certifies that the initial $990 million is insufficient to cover the demand for boxes.

The Commerce Committee, which authored the DTV section, originally approved the bill by a vote of 19-3 on October 20, 2005. The United States Senate approved the Act as part of the Budget Reconciliation Bill by a vote of 52-47 on November 3, 2005.