McCain Stakes Claim on DTV Transition Bill

Former Senate Commerce Chairman John McCain trumped his Republican colleagues earlier this week by introducing actual legislation setting a hard date of Jan. 1, 2009, for the United States to cease analog television broadcasting.

Parts of the vacated spectrum could then be dedicated to first responders for emergency services and the rest auctioned off for as much as $30 billion to wireless broadband providers.

Last week, current Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said his staff was preparing legislation to put a DTV transition bill on President Bush’s desk by the end of the year. However, he has been vague on the details of the complex transition, and Stevens has yet to produce the bill.

McCain’s legislation, though, comes fully loaded with details, most of which were rejected by his fellow Republican majority members just a year ago.

When he was chairman of that influential panel, McCain introduced the Save Lives Act of 2005 (the Spectrum Availability for Emergency-Response and Law-Enforcement to Improve Vital Emergency Services Act). This year’s version is remarkably similar.

While focused on forcing broadcasters to return 24 megahertz (MHz) for public safety uses, the bill has the practical effect of setting a hard deadline for all of the 108 MHz spectrum earmarked years ago for advanced wireless services.

McCain noted in his Tuesday floor remarks that Congress first pledged the spectrum to emergency wireless services in 1997.

“Now is the time for congressional action, before another national emergency or crisis takes place,” McCain said. “Access to this specific spectrum is essential to our nation’s safety and welfare, as emergency communications sent over these frequencies are able to penetrate walls and travel great distances.”

In addition to public safety spectrum, McCain’s bill aims to hasten the DTV transition with a converter box subsidy program projected to cost $463 million plus administrative costs. The bill calls for a comprehensive warning label program for analog television sets sold before 2009 and public education obligations for retailers and broadcasters.

McCain blamed last year’s defeat on broadcasters.

“Our efforts were thwarted by the powerful National Association of Broadcasters,” he said. “This year, I hope we can all work together and to pass a bill that ensures the country is not only better prepared in case of another attack, but also protects the vital communications outlet of broadcast television.”

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 deficit.

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