New bill sets DTV deadline

Billed as the “Save Lives Act of 2005,” new legislation was introduced by two Senate leaders last week that would require television broadcasters to return analog spectrum to the government by Jan. 1, 2009.

This time, the proposed deadline was wrapped in a national security package and combined with a harsh threat that broadcasters could be blamed for communication lapses in new terrorist attacks if they don’t quickly cede the spectrum. Senators John McCain, (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) introduced the legislation.

Under the bill, first responders to acts of terrorism and disasters would use a significant block of the analog spectrum given back by broadcasters.

In a report issued last summer, the 9-11 Commission recommended that Congress pass legislation forcing broadcasters off four television channels — or 24MHz of frequencies — that had been promised to public safety officials when broadcasters vacated them.

However, original DTV legislation passed as part of the Telecom Act in 1996 allows stations to operate on two channels until Dec. 31, 2006, or until 85 percent of households receive digital broadcast signals, whichever is later.

McCain, who chaired the Senate Commerce Committee until late last year, said broadcasters had reneged on promises made during the early days of the DTV debate to quickly return their old analog spectrum — perhaps as early as 2001.

Instead, NAB lobbyists were able to add a last-minute provision to the 1996 legislation allowing them to retain their analog channels until the 85 percent threshold is met.

The McCain-Lieberman bill also provides that the federal government spend $468 million for subsidized converters that allow analog television sets to receive digital signals. The subsidy would pay for one converter for each of the 9.3 million households with incomes at or below 200 percent of the poverty line.

The bill also contains a provision that would require cable operators to carry both a digital and an analog version of TV stations’ signals until 2011. Cable operators oppose such a requirement.

The bill was introduced amid a flurry of activity in Congress aimed at ending the DTV transition. In the House, Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton, (R-TX), has prepared draft legislation also setting a hard date of Dec. 31, 2008. Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens, (R-AK) is drafting legislation that supports a hard date of Jan. 1, 2009.

McCain said he did not want to wait for the other bills to be filed.