House passes budget bill with 700 MHz rules
The U.S. House of Representatives approved a budget reconciliation bill Friday, setting the stage for lawmakers to resolve differences regarding the clearing of the 700 MHz band in conference committee.
Under the House bill, television broadcasters transmitting analog signals in the 700 MHz band would be required to vacate the spectrum by Dec. 31, 2008, after which public-safety and commercial operators could use the airwaves. Commercial operators would bid on the spectrum in an auction that is expected to generate $10 billion in new revenue for the government, $500 million of which would be earmarked for public-safety interoperability grants, under the House bill.
Previously, the Senate approved a reconciliation bill that that calls for broadcasters to clear the 700 MHz spectrum on April 7, 2009—shortly after the NCAA college basketball tournament—and would allocate $1 billion for public-safety interoperability, as well as $250 million to improve the E-911 system and $250 million for enhancements to the emergency-alert system.
Both bills stipulate that most of the auction proceeds be used to reduce the budget deficit, with the House legislation designating a much greater percentage of the proceeds for this purpose. The biggest difference between the two bills is the funding allocated for a program providing digital-to-analog converters that would let U.S. consumers with analog TV sets receive broadcasters’ digital signals. The Senate bill earmarks $3 billion for this program, while the House legislation allocates less than $1 billion for it.
Yucel Ors, legislative director for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), said members of the House-Senate conference committee probably will be announced after Thanksgiving, although there is a chance it could be done this week. If a budget reconciliation bill cannot be enacted for some reason, lawmakers have indicated they will attempt to get the 700 MHz portion approved as separate legislation.
“I don’t think clearing [the 700 MHz band] is going to be an issue,” Ors said. “We’re confident it will happen on Dec. 31, 2008, or April 7, 2009.”
Not surprisingly, APCO would prefer the Senate version of the bill that includes additional money for public-safety interoperability, Ors said.
Although Congress theoretically could delay the clearing of the 700 MHz band after establishing a “hard date” for the digital-television transition, Ors said he doubts that such a change would occur.
“Once they set up the clearing, I think it will go forward,” he said. “If they changed [the clearing date] later, a lot of vendors and local communities would be very upset.”