I've done my part. Have you? I now have three high-definition-ready televisions. With a significant amount of the 700 MHz band allocated to public safety once broadcasters are gone, I'm trying to hurry this digital changeover as much as I can. Somehow, that seemed like a great excuse to go shopping, and one that seemed to pass muster with my wife. After all, I said, I was supporting my aunt's son, who's a police officer in this area.

If you recall, many a year ago (May 1985, to be exact), this spectrum was going to be made available for additional land mobile shared use (through elimination of the so-called UHF “Taboos”). Then, at literally the 11th hour, the broadcast industry told the FCC that this spectrum had to be held for “advanced television,” an undefined improvement in over-the-air broadcasting. On Oct. 21, 1987, the FCC put the brakes on the proceeding, and you know the rest of the story.

Eighteen years after that freeze, we still don't have closure. We were supposed to be finished on Jan. 1, 2007, with broadcasters having to convert to digital transmissions by that date, but not until at least 85% of American households have the equipment to receive over-the-air digital TV signals, whichever comes last.

Several legislators have been trying to make the deadline firm through different methodologies. Most recently, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation that would require broadcasters to vacate the 700 MHz band by Jan. 1, 2009, two years later than the current fuzzy date. This is a reintroduction of a slightly different bill introduced by Senator McCain last year.

The bill would appropriate up to $463 million (which would come from the 700 MHz auctions) to subsidize the purchase of consumer purchases of set-top conversion boxes. In addition, the bill includes $117 million to fund public-safety interoperability. By the time that you read this, the Senate Commerce Committee will have debated this bill.

Of course, with any bill in Congress, there is baggage. In this case, the baggage is the establishment of a tax credit for “recycling electronic waste” at $15 per unit. In addition, there is a requirement for the FCC to complete its proceeding on the public-interest obligations of broadcast licensees. Whatever the value of this provision, the public-affairs broadcasting requirement doesn't belong attached to this otherwise extremely worthwhile bill.

What worries me is that we will get bogged down in endless debates on the public affairs requirement, which all broadcasters will fight pretty rigorously. The delay in the establishment of a firm date for public-safety access to the 700 MHz band is hurtful to first responders and creates more uncertainty for potential manufacturers of 700 MHz products. I'm hoping that this provision is stripped from the bill and that action on the bill is swift and certain.

Now, it's time for you to do your part. Tell your spouse that you need to support your first responders, head down to your local electronics store and buy one of those flat panel beauties. Send your receipt to Senators McCain and/or Lieberman (depending on your political persuasion) and tell them that you're showing your support for their efforts. Then sit back and enjoy high-definition television. But be forewarned, just because the picture looks so much better, that doesn't mean that the programming has improved.


Alan Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio, Internet and entertainment industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker and can be reached at atilles@srgpe.com.