WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee voted today to boot broadcasters
out of their analog spectrum by no later than April 7, 2009. After that
date, broadcasters would air programs only in digital signals.
Lawmakers plan to dedicate part of the vacated analog spectrum for public
safety purposes and auction off the rest to wireless broadband providers for
as much as $10-$30 billion
The legislation earmarks from the spectrum auction $3 billion for set-top
box subsidies for the conversion to digital TV (DTV), along with $1.2
billion to facilitate emergency communications.
Despite the 19-2 committee vote, the legislation still faces an uncertain
future in Congress. When the full Senate votes on the bill, the issue of
consumer subsidies is likely to be contentious.
In addition, the House of Representatives is expected to begin debating its
own DTV bill next week. In early, draft versions of that bill, a hard
digital cutoff date is set for Jan. 1, 2009. The House version is also
likely to differ from the Senate Commerce’s in the amount of money dedicated
for the set-top box subsidy program.
“We intend to set aside $3 billion for set-top boxes. We have agreed to have
a $10 co-pay from everyone per set and we anticipate that the set-top boxes
by that time will cost roughly $50,” Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alas.), chairman of
the Commerce Committee, told a Free Enterprise Fund Symposium luncheon on
As expected, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) attempted to amend the Stevens’ bill
and insert a hard deadline of April 7, 2007. McCain said the inability of
first responders to communicate during Hurricane Katrina only reinforces the
need of the public safety community to have more spectrum.
“This is a very difficult issue that’s been with us for some time,” McCain
said. “It is very clear the sooner we get them [first responders] the
spectrum, the better.
McCain added, “The failure of first responders to communicate is just
devastating. People lose lives.” He called the failure of Congress to act as
“outrageous and a scandal.”
Before the vote on his amendment, McCain admonished his fellow lawmakers
that it’s the “same old mantra: the broadcasters versus first responders. I
hope, for the first time in history, the first responders will win.”
They didn’t. McCain’s amendment was defeated on a 17-5 vote.
“There’s no question that [McCain] is right about one thing, the first
responders do need this spectrum as rapidly as possibly, but we’ve been
told, particularly by the electronics industry, that it’s not possible to
produce 80 million set-top boxes that would be at reasonable prices between
now and 2007,” Stevens said on Wednesday.
According to Stevens, “If we take the 2007 date, there’s not going to be
enough money coming in from spectrum even to pay the cost of the set-top
boxes if they must be produced by 2007.”
Stevens also said the problem for first responders is not more spectrum but
the cost of the equipment to have in place when the spectrum becomes
The DTV transition became an unexpectedly hot issue in the 109th Congress
when the Republican leadership directed the House and Senate Commerce
Committees to find $4.8 billion each in new revenue to help slice the
Current law allows the broadcasters to retain their analog spectrum if more
than 15 percent of the homes in a market could not receive a digital signal.
Former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell said
last year the current law would put off the DTV transition by at least 10