Television Spectrum for First Responders?

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Broadcast television, an industry so potent it’s considered immune from the laws of political physics, might have finally encountered a superior force: terrorism.

Immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, fire and rescue squads from multiple jurisdictions could not communicate because their equipment was tuned to different radio bands.

Because useless radios cost lives at the World Trade Center, the 9/11 Commission urged Congress to assign first responders a big block of spectrum to promote interoperable communications at any future catastrophe.

The spectrum public-safety agencies desire is controlled by TV stations, and the industry is resistant to giving up any channels until the transition to digital television transition is completed, many years in the future.

Broadcaster spectrum, which allows signals to cover large geographic areas and penetrate buildings, is considered beachfront property.

“I think it’s an unconscionable situation,” Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last Wednesday. “I think we should get after this issue within the next six to 12 months.”

Legislation in Congress, supported by Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others, calls for taking spectrum away from about 40 TV stations on Dec. 31, 2006.

That’s years earlier than required under current law and the chief reason why some TV station owners have resisted.

Lawmakers who support the legislation (HR 1425) claim urgent public-safety needs far outweigh the commercial interests of a handful of TV stations.

“I am not speaking against the broadcasters. I am shouting against broadcasters,” Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), sponsor of the House bill, told McCain’s panel. “The lives of not just of the American people, but the lives of our emergency-response personnel are just too valuable to allow the broadcast industry to pooh-pooh a fix, and that’s what they have been doing for the last 15 years.”

Paxson Communications Corp. would lose 10 stations if the bill became law. In prepared testimony, company chairman and CEO Lowell W. (Bud) Paxson said the bill was discriminatory because current law allows him to retain the spectrum until 85% of TV homes had digital-reception equipment, a phase-in approach that is incompatible with an inflexible deadline.

“If the … bill were enacted as it is currently written, my company would face severe financial hardship and the likelihood of failure is a real possibility. Naturally, we would seek court relief and compensation from the government for losses and the impairment of our assets,” Paxson said.

Seldom have broadcasters felt outgunned on a key issue facing them in Congress. But spectrum-reclamation legislation, fueled by the national security threats posed by terrorism, clearly has Paxson worried.

Broadcasters do have a silent partner: Consumers who do not subscribe to cable or satellite and who would lose broadcast service if they did not purchase a DTV set or a digital-to-analog converter box. About 20 million households are broadcast-only, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.

Although he called for the timely recovery of broadcast spectrum, Sen. Bill Nelson (R-Fla.) said the effect on consumers had to be respected.

FCC chairman Michael Powell, who appeared before McCain’s panel prior to Paxson’s testimony, agreed with Nelson

“We must take care not to cut them off cold turkey,” Powell said. “I definitely think there is some dislocation there.”

Powell said Congress could address the problem by subsidizing digital-to-analog boxes with money raised from the auction of broadcast spectrum that isn’t assigned to public-safety groups.

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