Senate Eyes 700 MHz

Fresh off of summer recess and a scathing report from the 9/11 Commission, members of Congress are on the hunt for public safety spectrum. At a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee Sept. 8, legislators grilled witnesses on returning the 700 MHz spectrum occupied by broadcasters by 2007.

The 2007 deadline is set forth in the Homeland Emergency Response Operations Act, aka the HERO Act, which was introduced in the House before the summer recess. Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) have introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Vacating 700 MHz by 2007 would knock 65 analog stations, 10 digital stations and 737 translators off the air, according to David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service TV.

"Some suggest you could squeeze the 75 affected stations onto Channels 2 through 51," Donovan testified at the hearing. "There is no room. Moving 65 analog stations onto these channels will interfere with more than 300 surrounding stations, affecting the viewing of more than 86 million consumers."

McCain asked if Donovan would support legislation that gave broadcasters more time to clear the spectrum. After a bit of verbal fencing with McCain, Donovan said he would, as long as consumers had a clue about what was going on.

McCain, who generally holds broadcasters in the same esteem as Orcs in Middle Earth, actually recognized that the over-the-air contingent plays a role in public safety.

"Truly local broadcasters are an important part of our homeland security and often an important communications vehicle for the government in the event of a national emergency," he said.

Later in the hearing, McCain asked FCC Chairman Michael Powell is it was unfair to put certain broadcasters out of business based on their spectrum assignment.

"I definitely think there is some dislocation there and it might be said to be unfair," he said. "I think the critical need is to get the 24 megahertz for public spectrum, but the real question here is to get it all back and minimize the inequity of the transition.

"There is not a huge amount of spectrum somehow in the FCC basement that could easily compensate for the spectrum currently used in broadcasting," he said.

Powell told legislators that the FCC had already freed up 78 MHz of spectrum for public safety. He made a particular point of asking the lawmakers to codify the FCC's recent Nextel ruling, clearing up 4.5 MHz in the 800 band. The FCC expects Verizon to eviscerate that decision in court.

Powell also reminded the Commerce Committee that the FCC had already developed a plan to conclude the DTV transition by 2009.

"With a date certain, public safety officials and advanced wireless providers who have been waiting for broadcasters to vacate the 700 megahertz band would know exactly when they will be able to take possession and begin operations in these bands," he said.

Powell said that he wasn't necessarily opposed to a 2007 deadline, but that 2009 would give the marketplace more time to prepare for the analog shut-off, particularly since the OTA tuner act doesn't fully kick in until mid-2007.