McCain Bill Would End DTV Transition by 2009

9/20/2004 9:38 AM Eastern

Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) is advancing legislation that would end the digital-TV transition by 2009, setting up a clash with the broadcast industry over control of valuable airwaves sought by public-safety groups and wireless-communications providers.

McCain’s bill -- scheduled for a vote Wednesday in his committee -- would implement recommendations of the 9/11 commission, which found that public-safety crews that responded to the World Trade Center site ran into interoperability problems that access to a clear block of spectrum would help to solve.

The legislation, still in draft form, would reclaim 108 megahertz of beachfront spectrum used by dozens of TV stations, with 24 MHz parceled out to public safety. A big block would be auctioned for commercial users in a sale that could reap the U.S. Treasury a whopping $70 billion.

McCain’s approach would track with a digital-TV-transition plan under review at the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is expected to vote on the plan Nov. 9, one week to the day after the presidential election.

Termination of analog broadcasting would require TV stations to rely on their digital signals and force consumers with analog TVs not connected to cable or satellite to acquire new digital-TV sets or digital-to-analog converter boxes.

Analog-TV sets, because they are incompatible with digital-TV signals, would go dark. If connected to cable or satellite, those TV sets would continue to function due to a cable or satellite set-top box or because the cable operators had converted the digital signal to analog at the headend.

Broadcasters have opposed the FCC plan, saying that it would end the transition prematurely before millions of households have had time to acquire digital-reception equipment.

Broadcasters have said that the FCC plan ignored not only the 21 million homes that are analog-broadcast-only, but also the 18 million pay TV homes that have 28 million analog sets that are not connected to the pay system.

“[We] oppose the bill on the grounds that tens of millions of Americans could lose access to local TV stations if the McCain bill become law,” National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

Like the FCC plan, McCain's bill would end the digital-TV transition Dec. 31, 2008.

In a new twist, McCain would set aside $1 billion in auction proceeds to subsidize converter boxes for priority use by low-income broadcast-only homes, filling a gap in the FCC plan that broadcasters had also identified as a serious flaw.

The subsidy program -- overseen by the Commerce Department and the Office of Management and Budget -- would also allow consumers to use the federal money to pay for a one-time installation of cable or satellite TV as means of receiving their local-broadcast signals.

In a another provision, the bill would require TV-set makers, no later than Sept. 30, 2005, to place labels on analog-TV sets saying that the units won’t work after Dec. 31, 2008, without additional equipment. TV-set retailers would be required to post the same information in their stores.

Like the FCC plan, the McCain bill is silent on whether cable and satellite operators will be required to carry digital-TV stations’ multiple programming streams. However, the bill would require the FCC to issue a final decision on a multicasting-carriage requirement by Jan. 1, 2005.

The FCC might decide the multicasting issue at the Nov. 9 meeting. In January 2001, the agency ruled that a cable system had to carry just one digital-TV signal per station, even though digital technology allows each digital-TV station to transmit five or six programming services. Powell voted to limit cable carriage to one signal.

“[We] oppose the bill on the grounds that tens of millions of Americans could lose access to local TV stations if the McCain bill become law,” National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

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