Senate Commerce Committee staffers have drafted a bill setting April 7, 2009 -- the day after March Madness ends -- as the date to end nationwide analog TV broadcasts and complete the switch to digital transmission.
Millions of people who watch traditional, over-the-air analog broadcasts on sets with antennas will have to buy new digital TVs or set-top converter boxes to keep getting signals.
Congressional aides said they settled on the deadline -- which falls one day after the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball championships -- so as not to cut off any TV viewers at the height of the popular college basketball tournament.
Aides also said they hoped to give consumers plenty of time to buy new sets and are making plans to offer a federal subsidy of undetermined size to help people afford converter boxes.
Ending analog broadcasts, which have brought everything from "I Love Lucy" to NFL Football into living rooms for decades, will free up spectrum already set aside to improve police, firefighter and other emergency communications.
It will also bring a windfall in federal revenue by allowing the government to auction off spectrum to private companies who hope to exploit it for wireless Internet access and other high-tech uses.
In a letter yesterday, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and 30 other executives urged Congress to set a deadline quickly and argued it will be a boon to the economy.
"While there are many challenges associated with this transition, we ask you to remain focused on the concrete benefits of getting additional spectrum into the marketplace as soon as possible: enhanced public safety communications . . . and the deployment of ubiquitous broadband services to consumers," the executives wrote.
The failure of public safety communications during Hurricane Katrina has strengthened calls for Congress to free up spectrum so first responders can use it.
"The most important thing about this draft is that it's going to make spectrum available to public safety, police and firefighters around the country," said Senate Commerce Committee Chief of Staff Lisa Sutherland, noting that the bill would also set aside money to help first responders buy new radio equipment to use the spectrum.
The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to discuss the bill on Wednesday. It also must work out some agreement with House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who favored Dec. 31, 2008, as the cut-off date.
That date was not adopted in the Senate draft partly because it could disrupt New Year's Day college football bowl games and because of a desire to make the transition while Congress is in session and could take action if necessary, aides said.
The biggest challenge for Congress may be educating consumers, many of whom do not know any cutoff is looming and who continue to buy analog TV sets.
Satellite subscribers will not be affected by the transition because they already receive digital signals. Cable companies are expected to win government permission to convert digital signals to analog for their customers, leaving them unaffected.
The draft does not specify how much money the government will set aside to subsidize the set-top boxes or just how this will be done. One idea under discussion is for consumers to make a co-payment and for retailers to bill the government for the remaining cost.
The House and Senate Commerce Committees are under pressure to set the date because the budget resolution requires them to raise revenue, or cut spending, to reduce the budget deficit. The sale of analog spectrum could provide at least $10 billion, according to an informal estimate by the Congressional Budget Office.
Even if the committees reach agreement on a bill, aides noted that it could get derailed because of broader budget politics.