McCain Resurrects Spectrum Bill

Inferring that 9/11 casualties were higher than necessary because TV broadcasters occupy too much spectrum, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is taking another go at passing a DTV transition deadline bill. The former Commerce Committee chairman dusted off the SAVE LIVES Act, a bill to end analog TV transmissions by Jan.1, 2009. He introduced the legislation on the Senate floor Tuesday after holding a press conference to associate it with personal safety and to lambaste the National Association of Broadcasters.

"Why they would not choose to act in the public interest is something they'll have to answer for," McCain said.

He accused the NAB of lip service on the return of analog spectrum, the lack of which he equated with the loss of life on 9/11.

"Firefighters inside the towers were unable to get transmissions to evacuate the building," he said.

McCain was joined by Mary Fetchet, founding director and president of the "Voices of September 11th," who lost her 24-year-old son Brad in the collapse of Tower Two.

"I believe if he would have had more information, he could have escaped," she said. "We know now that on Sept. 11, more people could have been saved. We can't allow lobbyists and other obstructionists to stop these reforms."

NAB chief Eddie Fritts responded with a formal statement: "As former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has noted, local television stations provide a lifeline service during terrorist attacks, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters. We are committed to completing the digital transition in a timely fashion, including return of analog spectrum, and will work with Congress to ensure that millions of consumers are not left stranded by a premature end to analog broadcasting."

The bill, S.1237, includes provisions for digital-to-analog converter boxes, public education, TV warning labels and interoperable radios for first responders.

SAVE LIVES (mnemonically derived from "Spectrum Availability for Emergency-Response and Law-Enforcement To Improve Vital Emergency Services Act"), originally was introduced last September and was immediately amended to death. A clause to allow the FCC to waive the deadline "to the extent necessary to avoid consumer disruption" rendered the bill meaningless. Lawmakers adjourned the session with on a "Sense of Congress" that an analog shut-off date should be set.

The resurrected version of the bill, S.1237, does not specify an earlier deadline for stations in the 700 MHz band, as the original did. The converter subsidy has also been reduced, from $1 billion to $463 million, only for the 9.3 million households that do not exceed twice the poverty level (from GAO estimates).

Like the original, the remodeled bill mandates warning labels on analog sets, but it also requires retailers to display "warning language" and distribute brochures about available options, and it calls on broadcasters to air DTV transition spots, according to McCain's floor statement.

A new provision in the bill establishes a tax credit for recycling TV sets, and requires the Environmental Protection Agency to assess the need for a national electronic waste-recycling program.

Unlike the original bill, SAVE LIVES '05 does not specify funding for first-responder equipment, but instead instructs the FCC to do a needs study. The commission is also instructed to determine if the emergency-response community needed more spectrum than the 24 MHz designated to public safety in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. That swath of spectrum, located in the 700 Mhz band, was the subject of separate legislation last year that would have forced 75 stations (on Channels 63, 64, 68 and 69), to end analog transmissions by Jan. 1, 2008. At his Tuesday press conference, McCain said imposing an earlier deadline on those stations would be "unfair."

Sen. Ted Stevens, (R-Alaska), who now heads the Senate Commerce Committee, is expected to unveil his own analog deadline bill any time now. Asked why he didn't wait for his colleague's bill, McCain displayed his trademark testiness.

"It's time to act," he said. Just because I'm not chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee doesn't mean I won't act."