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Public Law 107-195: “The Law” Isn’t Always “The Law”

Last year, before leaving on their Thanksgiving breaks, both houses of Congress passed bills calling for the cessation of analog television broadcasting in the United States. The House version allowed NTSC transmissions to continue until the end of 2008; the Senate version offered a little more time—to cover the 2009 “March Madness” tournament. By year-end, there was agreement on February 17, 2009.

Is it time, therefore, to start panicking about millions of viewers (a quantity on which everyone seems to agree) losing broadcast television service? History provides a guide.

Do you have cable-TV service? If so, do you have a set-top cable box? Did it come from the cable company? How strange.
On June 11, 1998, in Report & Order 98-116, the FCC outlawed such boxes. The ban, in theory, went into effect on July 1 of last year.

The same order required PODs, point-of-deployment security modules (what we now call CableCARDs), to be provided by cable operators no later than July 1, 2000. Not one POD was deployed as of July 1, 2004, and, as current cable boxes illustrate, last year’s deadline fell by the wayside, too. Shocking though it may be, the FCC actually changed its mind.

It certainly wasn’t the first time. It’s extremely unlikely that your TV has a large wheel of colored filters spinning in front of its screen.

Nevertheless, after holding extensive hearings, the FCC adopted that type of color-television on October 11, 1950. It was developed by CBS, had 24 frames per second instead of 30 and six fields and 405 lines per frame instead of two fields and 525 lines. As you can imagine from those figures, it was essentially incompatible with existing black-&-white receivers.

RCA fought the FCC order all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the government. So, why don’t we have spinning filter disks on our color TV sets? The commission changed course and adopted compatible NTSC color on December 17, 1953.

So the FCC has been known to reverse its decisions regarding television technology. But the new analog cut-off date is not an FCC decision. After a conference committee works out differences between the House and Senate versions and the bill is signed into law (both of which are expected to happen eventually), the date on which analog broadcasts are to cease will be an act of Congress.

Actually, it will be the second act of Congress calling for the cessation of over-the-air analog television transmissions. The first was the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. It called for analog television to be shut off by the end of this year, not two years (or more) later.

Some of you may want to point out that December 31, 2006 wasn’t a “hard” date. There were exceptions in the law that could have allowed NTSC broadcasts to continue past the end of this year on a market-by-market basis.

That’s true. But there was a totally hard date in that 1997 law. The FCC was ordered to auction off spectrum to be vacated after the transition to digital-television broadcasting was completed, and that auctioning was to take place more than four years earlier than the cut off. “The Commission shall complete the assignment of such licenses, and report to the Congress the total revenues from such competitive bidding, by September 30, 2002.”

It was the law of the land. But the auctions weren’t completed by September 30, 2002.

For that, we may thank another act of Congress. It didn’t have a fancy name like the “Balanced Budget Act of 1997” or the “SAVE LIVES” (Spectrum AVailability for Emergency-response and Law-enforcement to Improve Vital Emergency Services) Act, proposed by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman to cut off analog television for the benefit of first-responder communications.

No, the act that stopped the auctions was simply called “Public Law 107-195,” although, in the grand government tradition of not admitting mistakes, it was also known as the “Auction Reform Act of 2002.” The act began by saying that “Circumstances in the telecommunications market have changed dramatically since the auctioning of spectrum in the 700 megahertz band was originally mandated by Congress in 1997, raising serious questions as to whether the original deadlines, or the subsequent revision of the deadlines, are consistent with sound telecommunications policy and spectrum management principles.”

In other words, Congress can change its mind, too.

Mark Schubin is an engineering consultant with a diverse range of clients, from the Metropolitan Opera to Sesame Workshop.