Broadcasters get on board
On the record, consensus continues to build for TV broadcasters to release their 700 MHz analog spectrum for commercial and public-safety uses by the beginning of 2009, although several potentially thorny details in the digital-television transition remain unresolved.
Thus far, all proposals on Capitol Hill have called for broadcasters to vacate the valuable 700 MHz spectrum on Jan. 1, 2009, when it would be available for other uses, including WiMAX and mobile video applications. Such a “hard date” would allow the FCC to auction the airwaves for their maximum value, which should generate much more than the $4.8 billion shortfall Congress needs in order to resolve in the next budget cycle.
While the 2009 date gained momentum in Congress, there were questions about whether the industry — specifically, the powerful National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) lobby — supported the idea. That changed during a July 12 Senate hearing, where representatives of the cable, satellite and broadcasting industries expressed support for the 2009 transition date.
“That’s significant news here today, that virtually everyone agrees that we need a hard date,” Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said during the hearing. “We have a hard date to go toward; we just need to work out the details.”
After the hearing, this sentiment was echoed by Harlin McEwen, chairman of the communications and technology committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
“I’m encouraged. … This is the first time we’ve heard everyone say they support a firm date,” he said. “We were not expecting [the NAB support of the 2009 hard date], and it was news to everyone in the room.”
NAB President and CEO Edward Fritts’ testimony was surprising because a hard date for the transition would nullify the current law, which lets broadcasters keep their analog spectrum until 85% of U.S. household-owned TV sets can receive broadcasters’ over-the-air digital signals.
Industry experts have said it could take decades to reach the 85% threshold. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said during the hearing that it took color television 20 years to reach the 85% penetration mark, and it was 16 years before VCRs reached the same threshold.
“The problem is, we don’t have another 20 years to wait,” said McCain, who already has proposed legislation for the digital-television transition. “Spectrum controlled by television broadcasters is essential to providing our police, fire and other emergency-response personnel the necessary tools to communicate with each other in the event of another emergency.”
McCain noted the communications difficulties cited by Scotland Yard in the aftermath of the first London bombings just a week before the hearing that reportedly forced the agency to temporarily operate in spectrum licensed to commercial carrier Vodafone. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) also focused on the need to clear 700 MHz spectrum for public safety, advocating that 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 matters, national responsibility and national security.”
Public-safety and national-security issues have become a higher priority again in the wake of the London bombings, but most Beltway observers remain skeptical that public safety will receive additional money or spectrum in any 700 MHz legislation.
Both McCain and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) — chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee — indicated they would consider securing spectrum for public safety before the 2009 date, and an international treaty has been signed to let public safety utilize 700 MHz spectrum (see news brief this page).
But McEwen testified that network planning cycles would make it difficult for public safety to use the spectrum earlier than 2008.
“Without a date certain, no one will plan to use [700 MHz spectrum],” McEwen said. “Nobody’s going to purchase equipment until they know they can use it.”
Meanwhile, other factors certainly will influence the legislative process. For instance, video service providers and broadcasters continue to use the 700 MHz debate as a forum for their ongoing disputes regarding must-carry and multicasting proposals.
But the most important aspect of discussions continues to be whether analog TV owners should receive government-provided 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.
“Why should anyone — anyone — have to pay to keep their television working?” asked Gene Kimmelman, senior director of public policy for the Consumers Union. “Let’s make sure that people’s TV sets keep working.”
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,” Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) said. “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.”
Precursor wireless strategist Rudy Baca said he believes “it will be budgetary politics that pushes” the 700 MHz debate, predicting that a date will be included in budgetary legislation expected to pass during the fourth quarter of the year.
Even if a transition date is agreed upon, the issue will not be fully resolved. McCain noted that a hard date was set a decade ago, but an NAB lobbying effort resulted in new legislation that introduced the 85% threshold.
“We’ve had a date certain before, haven’t we?” McCain asked.