WASHINGTON - The Senate moved the digital TV transition one step closer to reality on Thursday, setting a firm date for television broadcasters to switch to all-digital transmissions.
Lawmakers gave broadcasters until April 7, 2009, to end their traditional analog transmissions. The so-called "hard date" was included in a sweeping budget bill.
The bill also would provide $3 billion to help millions of Americans buy digital-to-analog converter boxes for their older television sets - so those consumers will continue to receive a signal once the switch is made permanent.
Legislation approved last month by the House Energy and Commerce Committee calls for a Dec. 31, 2008, deadline and provides nearly $1 billion for the converter boxes.
Differences between the measures would need to be worked out in a House-Senate conference.
In the Senate, an amendment by Republican John Ensign of Nevada that would have reduced the converter box subsidy to $1 billion was withdrawn. Spokesman Jack Finn said Ensign was concerned that the $2 billion in savings would be spent on other projects instead of deficit reduction.
Digital television promises sharper pictures and better sound than analog TV.
National Association of Broadcasters president Eddie Fritts said the 2009 deadline "represents a victory for millions of Americans who could have been left stranded by a premature end to analog television service."
The move to all-digital will free valuable radio spectrum, some of which will be allocated to improve radio communications among fire and police departments and other first responders.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., unsuccessfully offered an amendment to move up the hard date by one year, saying "first responders' ability to communicate during times of tragedy can be literally a matter of life and death."
Public safety officials had pressed for the earliest possible transition.
"We would have preferred an earlier date, but the most important thing is that we have a firm date so that people can start the planning and funding process," said Robert Gurss, director of legal and government affairs at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.
In addition to the hard date, the Senate measure also set aside an additional $1 billion for public safety to buy new radio communications equipment.
The original digital television bill was sponsored by Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
Separately on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission moved up by four months the date by which small TV sets sold in the U.S., those 13 inches to 24 inches, must have tuners to receive digital signals. The new deadline will be March 1, 2007. Sets under 13 inches will also have to have digital tuners by that date.
The commission had previously ruled that mid-sized sets, screens from 25 inches to 36 inches, be digital-ready by March 1, 2006.