McCain: Partial Spectrum-Return Guarantee


The Senate adopted an amendment Wednesday that would require some TV stations to give up spectrum by 2008 to accommodate the communications needs of public-safety groups responding to disasters like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In a compromise, Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) crafted an amendment with Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) that would free up 24 megahertz in the 700-MHz band no later than Dec. 31, 2007, provided the TV stations controlling the airwaves received “a bona fide request” from a public-safety organization, in addition to some other conditions.

Some of the details were fuzzy because McCain and Burns hammered out a deal off the Senate floor.

The compromise watered down McCain’s original proposal, which called for the return of all analog TV spectrum Dec. 31, 2008 -- a 108-MHz block that the federal government intends to auction for billions of dollars after addressing public-safety spectrum needs.

“This compromise is certainly not what [Burns] wanted and it wasn’t what I wanted,” McCain said on the Senate floor. “This is a way, I think, to achieve the primary recommendation of the 9/11 commission, which is to free up spectrum for the first responders.”

The amendment, which passed by voice vote, placed in doubt about $1 billion in funding for digital set-top boxes for low-income consumers who would lose access to some local stations that had to give up spectrum to public safety.

A Senate source said that although the $1 billion remained in the legislation, there was no mechanism to fund it. Until all of the analog spectrum is returned, the federal government can’t stage an auction and channel funds gained from it to underwrite the set-top boxes. Money was apparently also removed to help public-safety organizations purchase new communications equipment.

“This approach does not provide public safety the money for much-needed equipment or consumers a subsidy to ensure that all over-the-air viewers can continue to view television,” McCain said. “It was not my preference to strand public safety or consumers in this manner.”

About 75 stations, including the CBS affiliate in Detroit, were covered by the McCain-Burns compromise.

The Federal Communications Commission is planning to vote in November or December on a plan that would end the digital-TV transition Dec. 31, 2008, tracking McCain’s preferred course for reclaiming valuable spectrum sought by wireless-broadband companies and other auction participants.