S. 352: DTV Delay Act

S. 352

DTV Delay Act

Sponsor
Sen. John D. Rockefeller

Date
February 4, 2009 (111th Congress, 1st Session)

Staff Contact
Communications

Floor Situation

S. 352 is expected to be considered under a closed rule. This legislation was introduced by Senator John Rockefeller (D-WV) on January 29, 2009. The Senate passed the measure by unanimous consent on the same date.

This bill is a slightly modified version of S. 328, which failed under suspension of the rules in the House on January 28, 2009.

 

Bill Summary

S. 352 postpones the digital television (DTV) transition date from February 17, 2009, to June 12, 2009. While this bill purports to allow television stations to go all-digital before June 12, 2009, they may only do so as long as the transition is conducted in accordance with the FCC's current requirements. Many stations are unlikely to meet those requirements.

This bill extends the end of the federal coupon program for subsidized converter boxes from March 31, 2009, to July 31, 2009. Additionally, one replacement coupon may be issued per household for each coupon that was issued to such a household which expired without being redeemed. None of this occurs until after another $650 million is available in the stimulus package, however.

S. 352 extends the authority of the FCC to auction available spectrum through 2012. This authority had been scheduled to terminate in 2011.

This bill differs from the legislation considered in the House on January 28, 2009, only in that it claims to grant public safety entities with proper licenses the authority to use vacated analog bandwidth without any explicit further FCC approval. The bill still requires public safety agencies to comply with certain FCC regulations that makes public safety's ability to use the spectrum unlikely.

 

Background

On January 28, 2009, a similar DTV transition delay bill (S. 328) failed under suspension of the rules by a vote of 258-168, due to strong Republican opposition. 

The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-171) directed that over-the-air television broadcasts, currently provided in both analog and digital formats, will become completely digital on February 17, 2009.  Pursuant to that Act, households with only analog televisions will no longer receive television service after February 17th unless they buy a digital-to-analog converter box, purchase a digital television (or analog television with digital tuner), or subscribe to cable or satellite telephone services. 

The digital television (DTV) transition comes partly as a result of a 9/11 Commission recommendation calling for increased bandwidth for public safety services. The 9/11 Commission, established by President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, recommended additional radio spectrum for first responders, after reports of police and firefighters not being able to communicate with one another or with rescue helicopters in the air.  The transition will also "free up" additional spectrum for advanced wireless broadband services.  Some of the analog spectrum has been auctioned by the FCC for such commercial wireless services.

To help mitigate the transition, the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 established a digital-to-analog converter box program, to be administered by the Department of Commerce.  This program provides up to two $40 coupons for requesting households so that they may purchase converter boxes.  These coupons are being issued between January 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, and must be used within 90 days. 

On January 8, 2009, then President-elect Obama's transition team asked the House and Senate Commerce Committees to consider postponing the transition date.  This request was based on a National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announcement that the funding ceiling for converter box coupons was reached and that many households would not receive coupons in time for the February 17th transition.  However, as of January 2009, 94.3 percent of households had at least one television prepared for the transition and 85 percent had all their TVs prepared, according to Nielsen. 

Moreover, the coupon program is not out of funds. According to a letter sent by House Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee to Obama on January 14, 2009, "Of the $1.5 billion allocated for coupons, about half has been paid out for redeemed coupons; the other half is committed to coupons issued but not yet redeemed, which is why there is a waiting list.  Coupons not redeemed in 90 days expire, allowing about 350,000 coupons to be re-issued to other households every week." Approximately 1.9 million coupons have already been taken off the waiting list and sent to 950,000 households since the waiting list started January 4.

Members may be concerned that delaying the DTV transition would cause confusion for the American public, which has long been exposed to outreach efforts stressing the February 17th transition date.  These public outreach efforts included taxpayer-funded public service announcements, flyers, billboards, etc.   A delay may also impose a significant burden on local broadcast stations, causing additional expense and logistical issues stemming from operating analog signals for unplanned months.

The letter from House Republicans went on to say: "No one said this was going to be easy, but we have unquestionably made the right decision to complete the digital television transition on February 17, 2009.  We believe that panicky talk of a delay is breeding stultifying uncertainty, and that an actual delay would be a monumental error in judgment that would damage the program and the public."

Cost

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that S. 352 will require $85 million in expenditures in 2012, with would be offset by $100 million in receipts in 2013. S. 352 would not move a single consumer off the waiting list, however, unless and until an additional $650 million is spent on the program in the proposed Democrat "stimulus" legislation, which will waive the pay-go rules.