Completing the transition from analog television to digital television by the end of 2008 is realistic, but some sort of subsidized converter is needed to ensure that no consumers are disenfranchised, most members of the House telecommunications subcommittee said during a hearing yesterday.

The hearing was called to discuss draft legislation introduced by committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) that calls for all analog television-signal transmissions to cease as of Dec. 31, 2008. Barton said the proposal represents the efforts of bipartisan negotiations that admittedly did not generate consensus on all aspect of the complex transitions.

“It is an evolving document,” Barton said. “There’s really only one principle that’s not on the table--that the date certain not become a date uncertain.”

By completing the transition to digital TV, 700 MHz spectrum can be allocated for public-safety uses and be auctioned to commercial service providers, who are expected to pay between $10 billion to $28 billion for the airwaves--money needed as Congress tries to fill a $4.8 billion funding gap in the budget.

Although there is no mention of a subsidy program in the draft legislation, most of the debate focused on the notion of subsidized digital-to-analog converters, which would allow the 73 million analog sets to continue to receive over-the-air broadcasts when they become digital-only signals. At $50 per converter, the cost would be $3.7 billion for the converters, but none of the 11 panelists offered any estimates about what it would cost to administer such a program.

Committee members and panelists exchanged opinions regarding which consumers should qualify for a subsidy, who should administer it and how the subsidy should be distributed. However, most committee members expressed the belief that some sort of subsidy is needed.

“Fortunately, I believe we will have a subsidy,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), “Otherwise, I’m convinced that this legislation is dead on arrival.”

Gene Kimmelman, senior director of public policy for Consumers Union, said he believes the financial-aid proposals should not be labeled as subsidies but as compensation for the government choosing to take away property rights--something the government would be doing by making analog TV sets obsolete in terms of receiving over-the-air broadcasts in a digital age.

Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said wants to see the digital transition reach a conclusion so that public-safety entities can received much-needed spectrum for interoperable solutions.

“We owe them everything, and this is the way we can repay them for everything that they do,” Towns said.

In addition to public-policy objectives, several lawmakers noted that there are significant political incentives for ensuring that the transition to DTV is a smooth one.

“If our constituents turn on their TVs and don’t get a signal on a premature date certain, we can guarantee that our political careers will be ended on a premature date certain,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).