Panel Scraps McCain DTV-Transition Deadline


The Senate Commerce Committee voted Wednesday to scrap a plan sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would have ended the digital-TV transition by 2009 in order to free up spectrum for police, fire and rescue units for emergency communications.

The panel adopted an amendment that would require TV stations to give back 24 megahertz total -- channels 63, 64, 68 and 69 -- no later than Dec. 31, 2007.

The amendment would allow the Federal Communications Commission to waive the spectrum surrender if necessary to avoid “consumer disruption.” It was sponsored by Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.).

On Tuesday, McCain introduced a bill that would have required TV stations to yield 108 MHz of spectrum Dec. 31, 2008, unconditionally. McCain complained that the Burns-Hollings amendment was the handiwork of National Association of Broadcasters lobbyists to ensure that any spectrum return occurred on broadcasters’ preferred timetable and at the expense of public-safety groups.

The outcome of the Burns-Hollings amendment was a vital matter for the NAB. President Edward Fritts was seated in the audience when the Burns-Hollings amendment passed.

“This was a big win for Eddie,” a broadcast lobbyist said after the vote.

Some in Congress are pressuring TV stations to give back all of their analog spectrum as quickly as possible because public-safety groups need a clear block of spectrum to resolve interoperability problems that plagued rescue units at the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001.

Current law requires TV stations to give back their analog spectrum when 85% of households in a market have obtained digital-reception equipment -- either a digital-TV set or a set-top box. That’s a phase-in that could put off the transition for many years, perhaps even decades.

The 9/11 Commission, in its report, urged Congress to allocate spectrum to public-safety groups to solve serious interoperability problems.

The Burns-Hollings amendment passed 13-9.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is permitted to vote by proxy, did not leave instructions with Hollings on how to cast his vote on the Burns-Hollings amendment.

The NAB’s Senate victory shifts the debate to the FCC. The agency is expected to vote Nov. 9 on a plan that would track with McCain’s legislation by ending the digital-TV transition Dec. 31, 2008.