Public safety's best hope to receive 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band was effectively blocked last week, when markup amendments to a 700 MHz bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) negated the original legislation's intent to establish a clear date for the airwaves to be made available.

McCain's proposal called for broadcasters to vacate the 700 MHz spectrum currently used to transmit analog signals by Dec. 31, 2008. That deadline would have been two years later than the date established in the 1997 Balanced Budget Act but without that provision's condition that allows broadcasters to keep the spectrum until 85% of U.S. households have television sets that can receive broadcasters' digital signals — a threshold FCC Chairman Michael Powell said could take decades to realize.

To allay concerns that some Americans would be left without access to over-the-air broadcasts, McCain's bill also earmarked $1 billion in 700 MHz auction proceeds to fund subsidized converters that would allow analog televisions to receive digital channels.

An amendment added during the Senate Commerce Committee's mark-up of the bill would remove all deadlines for broadcasters to clear 700 MHz spectrum allocated for advanced commercial wireless services such as WiMAX. Supported by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), the amendment would establish a target date of Dec. 31, 2007, for broadcasters to clear the 700 MHz airwaves allocated for public-safety use.

This date would be a year earlier than the one McCain proposed, but public-safety officials expressed concern with a loophole allowing the FCC waive broadcasters' obligation to clear the spectrum.

The amended bill also would maintain the need for $1 billion for subsidized converters but does not identify a way to pay for them. Auction proceeds are not a viable funding source under the amended bill because it's unlikely an auction would be conducted without giving wireless providers a date when the spectrum could be used, said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Communications and Technology Committee.

“Without any funding [for subsidized converters], you can't clear the spectrum,” McEwen said. “I think that's their strategy to kill it.”

Indeed, the FCC has repeatedly postponed auctioning the 700 MHz airwaves in the past, which is understandable until the spectrum's availability is certain, said Ranjan Mishra, a principal in the wireless practice for Adventis.

McEwen said he was “very disappointed” in the markup amendment. An alternative would be to attempt to attach 700 MHz provisions to legislation being drafted as a result of the 9/11 Commission's finding, “but the same issues are going to be there,” McEwen said, noting the formidable lobbying power of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Broadcasters are the incumbent users of the 700 MHz spectrum, but the perception that they want to delay the digital-TV transition is erroneous, said David Donovan, president for the Association of Maximum Service Television.

In fact more than 1400 of the 1600 U.S. broadcast stations have built digital facilities and would like to avoid the additional expense of producing both digital and analog transmissions. However, cable providers are delivering only 300 to 400 of these digital stations' broadcasts to their subscribers.

Donovan and other broadcaster representatives said the FCC must require cable companies to carry digital signals to give the public the incentive to purchase digital TVs. Until then, broadcasters — and members of Congress that want to be re-elected — can't afford to alienate the viewers that use the more than 70 million analog sets currently in the marketplace, he said.


Editor's Note: This story originally published in the Sept. 27 issue of Telephony.

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