An amendment to the Save Lives Act (S. 2820) that would clear broadcast channels 63, 64, 68 and 69 for use by public safety by 2008 passed the Senate Commerce Committee by a 13-9 margin. The bill, introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the committee, would require that the nation’s transition to digital television be completed by January 1, 2009.

Under current law, broadcasters are not required to relinquish spectrum in the 700 MHz band until 85% of the nation’s households are capable of receiving a digital signal. However, because high-priced digital televisions have not sold well, many experts believe it could be decades before broadcasters will have to vacate the band under the original interpretation of the law. Consequently, FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree in June proposed a new interpretation that would deem all televisions receiving cable or satellite service as digital-ready, meaning the 85% threshold already has been met.