Senate Commerce Committee members today passed a bill that calls for television broadcasters to stop transmitting analog signals in the 700 MHz band by April 7, 2009, at which time public safety would be able to use 24 MHz of valuable spectrum.

Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) repeatedly emphasized that the “stripped-down” legislation only could address budget-related matters to comply with parliamentary rules and that it had to be passed by the committee this week to be considered by the full Senate this year. A companion bill addressing non-budgetary items related to the digital TV transition—most notably, a public-education effort—will be debated beginning next week, Stevens said.

Committee members debated budget commitments throughout the markup hearing. Auctioning 700 MHz spectrum to commercial operators in January 2008 is expected to raise at least $10 billion, $4.8 billion of which must be used to satisfy budget obligations.

As expected, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) offered an amendment to establish April 7, 2007, as the transition date, noting that public safety needs its 700 MHz spectrum immediately. The committee declined McCain’s proposal, with Stevens noting that the congressional budget office does not believe such an early auction would garner even the minimum $4.8 billion needed for the budget.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who subsequently suggested a 2008 transition date, questioned the committee’s priorities in the bill.

“It doesn’t make sense to me to have budget policy … take precedence over the Homeland Security and public-safety issues at stake here,” Nelson said. “This spectrum’s critical, and we’ve waited too long already.”

Nelson said Congress could recoup more than the $4.8 billion by nixing the capital-gains tax cuts called for in the preliminary budget. Stevens quickly retorted, “That’s not in the jurisdiction of this committee.”

In addition to allocating $4.8 billion for the budget, the bill earmarks $3 billion of the auction proceeds for a program to subsidize digital-to-analog converter set-top boxes that will let analog sets receive broadcasters’ digital signals. Another $200 million will be used to help pay to switch broadcasters translator equipment from analog to digital.

Next on the priority list is public safety, which is to receive funding for interoperable radio equipment and to upgrade PSAPs, according to the original bill.

Stevens said public safety may not have to wait until 2008 to receive its funds, noting that he plans to borrow $1 billion from the treasury that would be available to public-safety entities immediately after the bill is enacted.

A House bill addressing the digital TV transition is expected to call for broadcasters to vacate the 700 MHz band by Jan. 1, 2009.