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Barton Targets DTV Bill for Spring

House Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said Tuesday that he plans to introduce his long-awaited digital-TV legislation "sometime in the spring," and he expects to move it though the House by early summer.

He said the bill would be pushed separately from the sweeping rewrite of telecommunications laws that Congress will tackle later in the year.

The complicated telecommunications bill may take a long time to resolve and DTV can't wait, he said. "This DTV issue needs certainty."

He revealed  few details of the bill, which he said are still being worked out with House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton and the ranking Democrats on the panels, John Dingell and Ed Markey. Barton made his remarks at the Consumer Electronics Association's annual HDTV Summit in Washington.

As for his own preferences, Barton said he still prefers a Dec. 31, 2006, deadline for making TV stations go all-digital and reclaiming their old analog channels. He also continues to oppose giving broadcasters guaranteed cable carriage for the extra channels that going digital allows them to offer. Carriage of those channels, he has said previously, should be subject to negotiations of between stations and cable operators.

Barton did explain an expected government subsidy to help low income folks keep their analog sets working in the all-digital world.

He favors a bare bones approach, costing between $400 million and $500 million,that would pay for the $50-a-pop converters needed to allow analog sets to work with digital transmissions.

Only low-income folks--living at perhaps 150% to 200% of the federal poverty line--would be eligible.

To be eligible, consumers also would be required to be getting their TV only from over-the-air reception. Those getting TV from cable or satellite could get their conversion provided by their pay-TV operators and wouldn't need a government-provided box. Additionally, the government would pay for only one box per home. Barton estimates that 8-10 million boxes would be provided.

The government would pay for the boxes via rebates issued by the Treasury. After buying a box at retail, consumers would send their rebate coupon to the Treasury, which would verify the consumer's low-income status.

Though Barton did not address it, that scenario would also save money from the people who either neglect to collect their rebate or, perhaps for reasons of pride, decide not to submit it.

The program would be worth the cost because it would accelerate the now open-ended day when old analog channels would be reclaimed by the government and auctioned off to new users.

Estimates of the possible auction proceeds range from $4 billion to $17 billion, he said.
Everybody involved in this issue wants certainty, except for the broadcasters," he said.

Broadcasters are leery of a hard date because they fear they will have to give up their channels before a large majority of consumes are equipped for DTV. Broadcasters' critics also say they don't want to give up the old channels at all because they are worth billions.