House Commerce Committee members yesterday voted 33-17 to approve legislation that calls for the digital-television transition to be completed by the end of 2008 and earmarks $500 million in 700 MHz auction proceeds for local entities to buy first-responder communications equipment.

Similar to legislation passed by the Senate Commerce Committee last week, the House bill would have the FCC auction 700 MHz airwaves to commercial bidders in January 2008. The auction is expected to generate at least $10 billion in revenue, $4.8 billion of which is obligated to address budget considerations.

Other portions of the House bill differ from the Senate legislation. The House bill calls for television broadcasters to vacate the 700 MHz band currently used to transmit analog signals by Dec. 31, 2008, allowing public-safety and commercial entities to access the spectrum the following day. The Senate bill would establish the transition three months later, in April 2009.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said he believes the earlier date will provide enough time for the transition to be made smoothly.

“Enactment of this legislation by December [2008] would give us three years to prepare for the transition,” Barton said during yesterday’s markup. “That is more than enough time for manufacturers and retailers to move low-cost digital televisions and converter-boxes into the market, for the FCC to complete the channel-allocation process, for broadcasters to finalize their digital facilities, and for government and industry to prepare consumers for the transition.”

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan) submitted an amendment to create a $500 million fund for public-safety entities to buy new communications equipment that the committee approved. Upton made his proposal—supported by a coalition of public-safety organizations, including the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO)—after Democrats on the committee failed in an attempt to earmark $5.8 billion for a fund to buy interoperable communications equipment for first responders.

The public-safety communications funding proposed in the House bill is half of the $1 billion included in the Senate legislation.

But the biggest difference between the two 700 MHz bills is the funding for a program to provide subsidized digital-to-analog converter boxes that would let existing analog TVs receive the new digital signals.

While the Senate bill would provide $3 billion to fund such a program—a proposal applauded by consumer groups—the House proposal calls for $990 million. The House bill would let consumers apply for $40 vouchers for the converter boxes on a first-come, first-served basis, while the Senate legislation would send vouchers to consumers that would pay the entire cost of the low-cost converters.

Committee Democrats criticized the lower Republican funding level for converter boxes, saying the proposal does not include enough funding to provide vouchers to everyone that depends on over-the-air TV signals. Forcing the public to pay for converter boxes to keep their existing analog sets working could create a political backlash that causes unwanted results, said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.).

“The public will be screaming, and Congress will be forced to change the [digital-television transition] date yet again,” Markey said.

Some Democrats referred to the converter-box copay as a “TV tax” that they believe is unjustified.

“Since the government is accelerating the [digital TV] transition, it’s only fair that the government should bear the cost,” said Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who claimed the money saved in the converter-box program was being used by Republicans to offset tax cuts for wealthy Americans.