Senate Commerce Committee members advanced a bill requiring TV broadcasters to stop transmitting analog signals in the 700 MHz band by April 7, 2009, at which time the spectrum would be released to public-safety and commercial operators.

The bill represents “stripped-down” legislation that addresses only budget-related matters, said committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) during an Oct. 20 mark-up hearing. In addition to the April 2009 spectrum-transition date — three months later than previous proposals specified — the bill calls for commercial operators to bid on 700 MHz spectrum in a Jan. 28, 2008, auction that is estimated to generate at least $10 billion in new revenue (see sidebar).

A companion bill addressing non-budgetary items related to the digital TV transition was expected to be introduced soon after press deadline. Stevens expressed hope that both pieces of legislation will be enacted this year.

Two days before the bill mark-up, a panel of senior federal, state and local government officials expressed dissatisfaction with the delays in clearing the spectrum currently allocated to TV channels 52-69.

“To help those on the front lines, the 9/11 Commission made a common-sense recommendation: Congress should re-allocate broadcast spectrum for public-safety purposes,” said Timothy Roamer, a former congressman and 9/11 Commission member. “After [Hurricane] Katrina, communications for first responders must become an urgent priority for this Congress. We should not have to learn these lessons a third time.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former co-chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, expressed his frustration that Congress hadn't moved fast enough in moving television broadcasters out of the 700 MHz band.

“I'm embarrassed to stand before you today to note that some of the tragedy that took place as a result of Hurricane Katrina could have been avoided if Congress had acted in a more timely fashion.” McCain said, as he spoke at an Oct. 18 policy event sponsored by the New America Foundation.

McCain attributed the slow pace of DTV transition to the power of the National Association of Broadcasters since Congress allocated spectrum for digital TV in 1996 — a message he reiterated during the mark-up. hearing

“We have the same old match-up — the National Association of Broadcasters against the first responders,” McCain told Stevens during the hearing. “For the first time, I hope we'll side with the first responders.”

McCain offered an amendment to transition the 700 MHz spectrum in April 2007 instead of April 2009. But the amendment failed, as Stevens said conducting an auction so early would undermine the budgetary goals of the bill.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) questioned the priorities inherent in the proposed legislation. “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.”

Meanwhile, local officials around Washington are discussing plans to expand the District of Columbia's prototype 700 MHz first-responder broadband network into a highly survivable regional system encompassing neighboring suburbs in northern Virginia and Maryland.

“All 17 counties within the National Capital Region are ready to deploy a network of networks in June of '06,” D.C. Deputy Chief Technical Officer Robert LeGrande said during the New America Foundation event. “We're also working with the broadcasters, believe it or not, in the [D.C. region] to try to clear the spectrum earlier.”

LeGrande said as much as 30 MHz of public-safety spectrum may be needed in the future in addition to the current 24 MHz allocation under the DTV transition law. With this in mind, he expressed hope that Congress would not commit to selling spectrum until federal agencies fully evaluated future public-safety spectrum needs for wireless broadband networks over the next 10 years.