Security inspires public-safety spectrum bill
One year after Sept. 11, communications horror stories are still emerging: Firefighters trudging up the stairwells of the doomed North tower of the World Trade Center couldn't be warned of what had just happened to the South tower.
Another tale relates how a police helicopter viewing the severe structural damage in the towers couldn't communicate this critical knowledge to the firefighters on the ground.
"In large-scale incidents, there needs to be as much communications interoperability as possible, more than we have now," said Craig Sharman, government affairs representative for the National Volunteer Firefighter Council (NVFC), one of the supporters of H.R. 3397, the Homeland Emergency Response Operations (HERO) Act.
The HERO Act, introduced by Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) last December, closes a loophole in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 that would likely delay the transfer of some NTSC broadcast-channel space to the public-safety community. Detractors from the broadcast industry say the proposed law is a threat to the very existence of several established TV stations, because it would force them to go digital-only long before enough digital receivers are in the market.
In the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, Congress required the FCC to allocate 24 MHz of spectrum for public safety concerns, which the FCC did on Channels 63, 64, 68, and 69. But it also allowed broadcasters on Channels 60 to 69 to continue NTSC operation beyond the Dec. 31, 2006, deadline for analog switch-off, if fewer than 85 percent of households in their markets had a TV that could receive digital television signals at that time.
Even with the FCC's recent move to require digital tuners in all new TVs sold by 2007, the 85 percent figure appears chimeric. The HERO Act affirms the 2006 deadline for Channels 63, 64, 68 and 69 to relinquish their analog spectrum and shut down NTSC operations on those channels, no matter how few digital receivers exist in their markets.
Public-safety officials say they need the spectrum - and a firm deadline on its transfer - to pursue modern, interoperable communications systems.
Broadcast interests say this is unnecessary because the public-safety community is notoriously inefficient in using its spectrum. Some also point out that the communications problems experienced in New York were problems of interpretation and analysis, not just technical interoperability.
Beyond that, threatening the business of many broadcast stations just isn't fair, say some. "This is a classic 'taking' of somebody's property, [it 's] not just greedy broadcasters trying to keep their free spectrum," said Greg Schmidt, vice president and general counsel for LIN TV, which owns about 25 stations.
CHANNEL 69, WHERE ARE YOU?
Barry Fisher, general manager of independent station WFMZ (Channel 69) in Allentown, Pa., said his station serves an important role in the community and there would be an "uprising" among the several million potential viewers in his market if he took it off the air. "We have 47 newscasts per week and other programming that is of extreme importance to this region," he said. "If our Channel 69 transmitter goes down, the phone rings off the hook."
By contrast, when the station takes the digital signal (airing since 1999) down for any reason, nobody calls or complains.
"Congress' intent was clear: They want a digital transition to move as quickly as possible, but they don't want to disrupt existing television," Fisher said.
WFMZ is actually upgrading its analog signal from 1.78 MW to 5 MW. Fisher said the station had hoped to put its money into digital, but because there's no clear progress on DTV penetration the station will fulfill its 1999 construction permit to upgrade its NTSC operation.
If the HERO Act passes, "We would be extremely frustrated," he said.
WBBC, a PBS affiliate operating on Channel 68 in Cocoa, Fla., is worried about the HERO Act because it had hoped to pursue auction options. Its plan was to hit cable headends with its digital Channel 30 and rely on the 70 percent cable penetration in its market to reach a decent viewership.
Station Manager Phil Wallace said the HERO Act wasn't really on his station's radar screen. But now that it might eliminate a source of income, a consultant is investigating the issue. "We need to really find out what the impact would be," he said. "We were counting on someone seeing the value of that channel in an auction."
LIN's Schmidt said it is hard to conceive of what the act proposes. "LIN has channels that would be affected," he said, citing Channel 64 in Providence, R.I. "That's a Fox affiliate. Are they going to knock off the Fox affiliate in a top-50 market?"
Schmidt said that the FCC, by mandating digital tuners in all new television sets sold by 2007, had started to do what needs to be done.
"The problem that we have with the HERO Act is that it doesn't deal with the basic issue, which is the consumer problem. Consumer TV sets will be diminished by the act if not obsolesced," he said.
Harvey Arnold, corporate DE for Sinclair Broadcasting Group, has a somewhat different take on the consumer end of the DTV uptake, noting that the HERO Act would not be a problem if the DTV transition were more robust. "If the system was receivable people would be getting it and buying set-top boxes," he said. "We have some [Channel] 68s and 69s, but we'd feel better about pushing the digital transition to conclusion if the system worked better."
Given the current state of the DTV transition, Arnold said it would be "ludicrous" to bypass the 85 percent threshold. "It's going to kill terrestrial broadcasting," he said.
Proponents of H.R. 3397 say that making the spectrum available in a "date-certain" manner would alleviate a major problem for local governments, agencies and communications equipment manufacturers who need to move forward in producing and acquiring equipment for the spectrum.
"The reason [additional spectrum] is necessary is because there is a shortage of spectrum for public safety, especially in major metropolitan areas," said Bob Gurss, outside counsel for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), which supports H.R. 3397.
Gurss said the spectrum shortage had a number of consequences beyond simply creating congestion on existing public safety communication systems: "[The spectrum shortage] inhibits the ability to implement new communication technologies such as mobile data networks and it inhibits the development of interoperable radio systems, which give [safety personnel] the ability to communicate between jurisdictions."
Such interoperable systems are keenly sought by public-safety workers. Gurss said some communities have built wide-area systems that cover multiple agencies on the same radio system or compatible systems. Many areas, however, don't have enough spectrum to do this.
"One of the big benefits of clearing that spectrum is to create this nationwide interoperability," Gurss said.
Gurss stressed that public-safety officials and government had been eyeing the spectrum since long before the terrorist attacks. "September 11th put a lot of attention on something we [in the public-safety community] had been talking about for a long time."
Gurss said the arguments for the HERO Act should go beyond discussions of whether having more spectrum available would have saved lives in the Twin Towers collapse or made the rescue effort at the Pentagon more efficient.
"It's hard to pinpoint exactly what could have been better," he said. "Clearly communications were a problem in New York. They are still examining exactly what the nature of the problem was, but there was a problem with people not being able to communicate even within the fire department."
Proponents of the HERO Act acknowledge that claiming the four channels' spectrum could have a major impact on broadcasters forced to discontinue analog service.
"Part of what would go into the mix here is that the broadcast stations are capable of being received over cable," said Gina Harrison, legislative counsel for Rep. Harman.
This is imperfect, say the act's opponents, because cable carriage varies tremendously from city to city and a home's second and third TV sets, not connected to cable, are an important part of broadcaster coverage.
Another possible option mentioned by some in public safety is an affected station starting to use its digital channel for NTSC. Although the FCC has said that stations that vacate their Channels 60-69 may broadcast NTSC on their DTV allocations, the interference involved with this approach makes it untenable, said Schmidt.
An option that seems popular on both sides is speeding up the DTV process through actions such as the FCC's recent order to include digital tuners in all new TVs sold. "Ultimately a firm date for clearing the spectrum and speeding up the DTV process are probably going to end up going together, " Gurss said.
Schmidt added that whatever happens, he hoped the public-safety community would be more efficient in its use of spectrum than it has been in the past. "The public-safety people have forever resisted coordinating amongst themselves and doing anything collectively that would be efficient in its use of spectrum," he said.
Part of the problem is simply the nature of government, said Schmidt, because local city councils and governments are not interested in appropriating the funds for joint activities with other people.
He also said public safety can accomplish a lot using public networks and regular commercial facilities. "In times of emergency you need emergency overrides and secure lines, but that's a small part of what they do; 98 percent of what [public safety] does can be accomplished using public networks."
Harrison said the bill has been introduced and has about 20 co-sponsors and hopes it will be introduced in September.
Like all of the stations operating on the affected channels contacted for this story, WFMZ was not familiar with the legislation when contacted, but eager to investigate where it stood. WFMZ's Fisher said his station's lawyers thought the legislation would not succeed because it did not have enough support.
For its part, the NAB does not support the HERO Act, citing free TV's role in society.
"It could mean that millions of Americans who rely on free, over-the-air TV for news, entertainment and potentially life saving information would be disenfranchised from that service," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.
"Predicting anything with Congress is difficult," Schmidt said. "If [the anticipated Omnibus DTV legislation] does goes forward it is quite possible that something like the HERO Act might be in there. It just has to be adjusted to the point where it doesn't do undue damage."
Sinclair's Arnold predicted lawsuits from affected stations if the Act passes.
"You would have no choice but to sue," he said. "I couldn't see a station just going out of business ... If nobody is receiving the DTV signal and they have to switch, I think there will be a lot of lawsuits."
Security inspires public-safety spectrum bill