The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday voted 336-75 to approve sweeping intelligence-reform legislation, including a non-binding resolution that calls for Congress to address the digital-television transition next year to clear 700 MHz spectrum for commercial providers and public safety next year.

Today, the legislation is scheduled to be considered by the Senate, which earlier this year established a firm date for broadcasters to clear the 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band earmarked for public-safety uses such as channels for interoperable communications between entities.

However, the language emerging from the conference cited “deficiencies” with such plans, because they would dislocate as many as 75 broadcast stations that “serve a critical public-safety function by broadcasting weather, traffic, disaster and other safety alerts.”

“Such disparate treatment of broadcasters would be unfair to the broadcasters and their respective viewers,” the legislation states. “Requiring the return of all analog broadcast spectrum by a date certain would have the benefit of addressing the digital television transition in a comprehensive fashion that treats all broadcasters equally, while free spectrum for advanced commercial services.”

Under current law, broadcasters are required to return analog spectrum in the 700 MHz band on Dec. 31, 2006, if 85% of all households in their market have digital TV sets. Most experts agree that it could take decades to reach this threshold.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell has supported an agency plan to include cable and satellite subscribers in the calculation to meet the 85% threshold, but many have questioned whether the proposal would meet the intent of Congress. In a subtle change, the House-approved legislation indicates it does.

Broadcasters must vacate their analog spectrum by “the date on which more than 85 percent of the television households in the market of such broadcaster can view digital broadcast television channels using a digital television, a digital-to-analog converter box, cable service, or satellite service.”

The subtle change in wording could remove questions about the FCC proposal, according to Precursor wireless strategist Rudy Baca.

“That wasn’t in the original law—that is a change,” Baca said.

Meanwhile, the legislation includes a resolution that states Congress “must act” on comprehensive legislation to address the digital-television transition during 2005. However, Baca said that portion of the legislation is not binding.

“That’s just what this Congress is thinking right now, but there’s no enforcement included,” Baca said.

The Senate is expected to vote on the intelligence-reform bill this afternoon.