Stevens: 700 MHz bill coming on Oct. 19, public-safety funds included
Powerful Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, yesterday said he will introduce a bill on Oct. 19 calling for 700 MHz spectrum to be cleared by 2009 and for proceeds from the auction of other airwaves in the band to be used for 911 system upgrades and interoperability.
Stevens previously indicated plans to unveil 700 MHz legislation this week, but he and Commerce Committee Co-Chair Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) have not finished the details of the proposal, Stevens said yesterday in a speech before at the Association of Maximum Service Television Conference in Washington, D.C. The bill will be marked up by the committee on Oct. 19, Stevens said.
In the wake of communications problems during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there was some discussion that public safety should receive its 24 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum to be cleared by broadcasters closer to the Jan. 1, 2007, date established a decade ago. Stevens said the new legislation calls for a Jan. 1, 2009, transition date to allow more time for manufacturers to build equipment and to educate the public.
There also are monetary implications attached to the 2009 transition date. Last week, Stevens said government estimates indicate the 700 MHz auction would generate much more revenue if conducted in 2008 rather than during the next year. A 2009 date also would let the government educate the public on the transition and give consumers three Christmas buying seasons to buy digital televisions, which would decrease the need for subsidized digital-to-analog set-top-box converters for legacy televisions.
“The later the hard date is, the more digital televisions people will have bought on their own, and fewer set top boxes … will be needed,” Stevens said. “And, the fewer the set top boxes, obviously, the less subsidy will be required. In addition, by providing time for manufacturers to gear up the production lines and achieve economies of scale, the price of the box will likely be less.”
Minimizing the subsidy cost is important to public safety, because Stevens said his bill would earmark proceeds from the 700 MHz auction to fund three critical issues: interoperability, upgrades to the 911 emergency-calling system, and an integrated public-alert system.
The auction is expected to attract as much at $10 billion in bids from commercial entities wanting the prime 700 MHz spectrum, but $4.8 billion will be needed to help relieve budget deficits. How much money is spent on the converter subsidy program—estimates range from $500 million to $2.5 billion—will dictate how much auction revenue is left for public-safety projects.
Stevens said there is some sentiment on Capitol Hill to allocate at least a portion of the auction proceeds to help rebuild the hurricane-ravaged regions, but he hopes to focus the funds on public-safety needs.
“I encourage you to help us convince the members of the committee and the Congress that this money that we raise is money that should be used in this system and not diverted to these other very important projects that are necessary in the disaster areas for their recovery,” he said.
While the bill being introduced on Oct. 19 will address budgetary issues related to the digital-television transition, other non-budgetary issues such as public education must be addressed in a companion bill, Stevens said. The matter is complicated enough that Stevens said he expects Congress to extend its session to address it.
“The passage of both bills is necessary to accomplish our goals,” Stevens said. “As you can tell it’s going to be a very interesting period between now and Christmas. I think we’ll be here until Christmas.”