Senate DTV Hearing: More of the Same

Just three days before his 50th birthday bash, the chief lobbyist for public TV stations found himself alone on Capitol Hill, where broadcast bashing has taken precedence over scandals involving interns. As the sole representative of the broadcast industry at a full Senate Commerce Committee hearing held on Wednesday, APTS president and CEO John Lawson sat through several rounds of brickbats, starting with Sen. Jane Harmon, (D-Calif.), who scolded broadcasters for their sense of entitlement.

"They somehow seem to feel they deserve compensation," she said, apparently harkening back to Bud Paxson's ploy to get cash for the early return of transition spectrum.

Harmon urged her committee colleagues to adopt the Homeland Emergency Response, or HERO Act, which would enforce the 2006 analog shut-off deadline, with no loopholes.

Lawson took the opportunity to reiterate that there are public broadcasters out there willing to return their analog spectrum next year if they get multicast must-carry, and a chunk of auction proceeds put into a educational programming trust fund. Lawson said new wireless services could be tested in such markets, and rolled out broadly as spectrum becomes available. He then sat glumly as the rest of the witnesses, save FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree, took their best shots.

Thomas Hazlett, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, actually asserted with a straight face that making more spectrum available for cell phone companies would make usage rates decline, (unlike broadcast rates, which remain the same--free). Hazlett also testified that since only around 10 million U.S. homes have no cable or satellite service, (as opposed to the commonly accepted number of more like 15 million), the government could simply buy them all satellite dishes for the low, low, one-time investment of $3 billion--a fraction of the value of the spectrum used for broadcast TV. Hazlett has neglected to specify who will pay the monthly fee for those 10 million households once the dishes are bolted onto the siding.

Intel CTO Patrick Gelsinger told lawmakers that clearing the TV spectrum for wireless broadband service, such as its own WiMAX technology, would spur a global economic boom.

"If the United States were to move forward expeditiously to make this spectrum available for new uses, it could start a bandwagon effect," he said. "I believe the benefits of the new wireless broadband services would be so compelling that a critical mass of other countries would quickly move to clear spectrum in this range."

Michael Calabrese, vice president and director of the Spectrum Policy Program at the New America Foundation weighed in with his think tank's proposal to repeal the DTV tuner mandate and yet shut down analog broadcasting by 2008.

While Ferree's DTV conversion plan originally struck out with broadcasters, he was the only one at the hearing who suggested that a 2006 analog shut-off would take more than the hot air from Capitol Hill. Ferree's plan couples a 2009 deadline with the inclusion of cable subscribers in the 85-percent, analog shut-off threshold count.

"Our plan was an attempt to do it within the existing statutory framework," he said. "Just recognizing the sooner we do this, the bumpier the ride for consumers."

By 2009, converter boxes will be cheaper, DBS subscriber rates will rise and consumers will have a clue, he said.

"Also, by 2009, we believe over-the-air reliance will be at close to five percent," he said.

In a Capitol Hill coup, Ferree actually avoided giving Committee Chairman John McCain a straight answer on just when the FCC would present a formal proposal to conclude the DTV transition.

"We need to get our comments back on the 15 percent, and to educate the chairman," he said, referring to the Commission's call for comments from the over-the-air only contingent.