House Committee OKs Digital TV Switch Bill

House lawmakers want all-digital TV broadcasts (search) to kick in sooner than a Senate bill requires, and they want to spend about a third less on the conversion.

Legislation approved Wednesday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee (search) calls for a Dec. 31, 2008, switch-over and provides $990 million to help millions of Americans with older, analog TV sets (search) pay for converter boxes so they can keep receiving broadcasts after the switch is made.

About $160 million of that would go to administrative fees, including campaigns to let consumers know they may need converter boxes.

Senate legislation would spend about $3 billion on the conversion, with a firm switch date of April 7, 2009.

Most Democrats did not support the House bill, which they said would provide converter boxes for only 10 million households — about half of the homes that would probably need them. Consumers would have to request vouchers to help pay for the converters; Democrats say the vouchers should be sent to everyone.

"The Senate does come closer to what we think needs to be done," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the ranking minority committee member, who voted against the bill.

Consumer groups worried that the money would buy too few conversion boxes, leaving vulnerable groups with blank TVs come 2009.

"The consumers who are least informed and least connected are the least likely to get assistance," said Jeannine Kenney of Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports.

The committee majority disagreed.

"We don't expect multimillionaires to take advantage of the program," said Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas. "The assumption is that households that don't need the coupon won't ask for it."

An estimated 21 million households rely solely on free, over-the-air television, and they'll need some type of a converter box to keep receiving their television service in the digital era. Cable and satellite customers won't be affected, and higher-end TVs may already be capable of receiving digital signals.

In both the Senate and House legislation, the converter subsidy program would be paid for by money raised from the auction of the analog spectrum, or radio frequencies, which broadcasters are vacating. Those frequencies are valued at $10 billion but could net significantly more than that.

Some of the spectrum has been promised to public safety groups to help improve radio communications. Committee Democrats on Wednesday wanted to dedicate nearly $6 billion of spectrum auction proceeds to programs to help local authorities get this spectrum and put it to use. The final House legislation, however, includes about $500,0000 for this purpose. It also gives New York City $30 million to compensate temporarily for the loss on Sept. 11, 2001, of a major antenna tower.

It is estimated that converter boxes will cost about $50 or $60. The bills in both chambers call for the government to pay about $40, with the consumer paying the rest.