Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, has introduced draft legislation that would require television broadcasters to clear valuable spectrum in the 700 MHz band at the end of 2008, to complete the transition to digital television.

Currently, broadcasters use the airwaves to transmit analog television signals. Under existing law, broadcasters are not required to vacate the 700 MHz band until 85% of all households can receive digital signals — a threshold that many industry observers believe would not be met for decades.

Released last month, Barton's draft legislation — co-sponsored by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) — would establish a firm deadline of Dec. 31, 2008, for broadcasters to clear the spectrum, which would allow the 60 MHz to be auctioned for other uses, such as wireless broadband services. The bill calls for the FCC to conduct the auction by April 1, 2008.

“The current 85 percent penetration test guarantees only confusion and uncertainty,” Barton said in a prepared statement. “It is far wiser to plan for the coming change than to sit back and wait for television sets to go dark.”

Proceeds from the auction are important, because Congress is trying to fill a $4.8 billion gap in the budget. Estimates of the value of the 700 MHz spectrum vary widely, with some projections as high as $27 billion and others as low as $9 billion, according to a Medley Global Advisors report released Monday.

The fact that so much spectrum would be available in the market in a short time period makes it difficult to estimate the full budget impact the bill would have, and the potential for depressed prices could attract new bidders to the auction arena, the Medley Global Advisors report stated.

“The 60 MHz of broadcast spectrum earmarked for sale by the DTV bill … is enough additional supply to depress prices in pending auctions, including the upcoming sale of airwaves for advanced wireless services,” the report stated. “Falling prices and additional spectrum may attract the bidding cable companies eager to make good on their threat to compete in the wireless market.”

Another aspect of Barton's legislation would require analog-television makers to clearly mark that their TVs will be rendered obsolete on Jan. 1, 2009. Although the notion of subsidized digital-to-analog converters has been debated on Capitol Hill in recent years, the Bush administration has opposed such proposals. Barton's bill does not include any provisions for a subsidy.