WASHINGTON (AP) _ Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and other industry leaders urged lawmakers Friday to speed the transition to digital television in order to free up radio spectrum for wireless broadband services, especially in rural and poor areas.
In a letter to House and Senate lawmakers, high-tech officials said the spectrum would reap enormous benefits for consumers and the economy.
The letter also stressed the need to clear the spectrum to improve police, fire and other first-responder radio communications. Some of the frequencies that would be vacated in the transition from traditional analog to digital TV were promised to public safety officials in 1997.
The rest of the spectrum would be auctioned by the government. It's been valued by congressional officials at $10 billion, though industry puts the estimate as high as $30 billion.
Current law calls for broadcasters to make the switch to all-digital transmissions _ which promise sharper pictures and sound _ by late 2006, or when 85 percent of households have the ability to receive digital signals. But there's confusion about how to count that 85 percent, so Congress plans to set a so-called ``hard date'' for the conversion to all-digital.
The coalition urged Congress to set the earliest possible deadline, but said it should be no later than Jan. 1, 2009.
``New and innovative technologies that will help meet the goal of universal, affordable broadband access are already being developed and readied for early deployment in this spectrum,'' said the letter from the High Tech DTV Coalition. Members include Microsoft, Intel, Dell, Cisco Systems and the Information Technology Industry Council.
The letter was being sent to members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The Senate committee plans to take up the legislation next week, and the House panel is likely to take it up the following week.
Discussions have focused on late 2008 or an early to mid-2009 deadline.
Nick Kolovos, a director and counsel for government relations at the Information Technology Industry Council, said setting a hard date to free the spectrum will bring more competition to the broadband market, particularly in remote and underserved areas.
Right now, he said, people only have two choices for high-speed Internet services _ cable or DSL service provided by the phone companies.
``This is a third pipe into the home, and competition is obviously good for increasing broadband deployment rates and bringing down prices,'' Kolovos said.