Consensus continues to grow for a Jan. 1, 2009, deadline for television broadcasters to relinquish their analog spectrum in the 700 MHz band, with a National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) representative yesterday testifying before the Senate that his organization supports such a “hard” date.

NAB President and CEO Edward Fritts said his organization’s board voted three weeks ago to support the 2009 transition date that has gathered momentum among lawmakers proposing legislation. NAB also realizes that a so-called “hard” transition date for broadcasters to only transmit signals digitally would nullify an existing law stipulating that broadcaster would not have to vacate the analog spectrum until 85% of U.S. households can receive digital signals.

The 700 MHz spectrum is considered prime for broadband wireless deployments, including WiMAX and mobile wireless video networks. Auctioning most of the vacated airwaves to commercial entities is expected to generate at least $10 billion in revenue for the government—a critical fact for Congress, which has to find $4.8 billion to resolve a budgetary issue.

Getting the support of the NAB—one of the most powerful lobbying forces on Capitol Hill—was considered crucial for Congress to pass legislation that would free 700 MHz for commercial and public-safety uses. However, Fritts remained steadfast in NAB’s belief that cable and satellite distributors should be required to carry local broadcasters’ multicast channels.

Representatives of the satellite, cable and consumer-electronics industries also expressed support for a “hard” date for the digital-television transition. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) both focused on the need to clear the spectrum so the 700 MHz airwaves can be used for public-safety communications. Rockefeller said he advocates a “significant portion” of any auction proceeds be dedicated to providing communications infrastructure to first responders.

“This isn’t just a telecommunications discussion,” Rockefeller said. “This is about bottom-line matter, national responsibility and national security.” Harlin McEwen, chairman of the communications and technology committee for the International Association of the Chiefs of Police (IACP), said it would take two or three years for public-safety entities to deploy 700 MHz networks, but none of that work can begin until lawmakers establish a firm transition date.

“Until Congress establishes a date certain for TV broadcasters to vacate the 700 MHz band, most public safety agencies and state/local governments cannot begin significant planning and funding for new radio systems in that spectrum,” McEwen said.

Of course, the biggest source of debate remains what role, if any, the government should play in providing digital-to-analog converters that would let existing analog sets receive broadcasters’ digital signals. Cost estimates for such a program vary significantly, from $800 million to $4.5 billion, depending on the source.

Many in Congress fear that paying for such a program will undermine their primary budgetary goals for the 700 MHz auction proceeds. But an even larger group of lawmakers fear the potential political backlash that could be generated if millions of analog TV sets suddenly don’t work on Jan. 1, 2009.

“If you want an uproar from the people of this country, have their TVs go off,” said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). “I find it very interesting that the [proposed transition] date is Dec. 31, 2008, instead of the summer of 2008, where you know darn well what the issues would be in those [November general] elections.”