Can Congress raise $10 billion for new radios, set-top boxes, during a crisis?

Washington (DC) - After over a decade and a half of debate, it is now finally a bill : The Senate Commerce Committee yesterday finally reported to the floor of the full Senate what is now called the Digital Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005, having passed the bill by a vote of 19 - 3. The bill sets a "hard date" for the discontinuation of analog television broadcasting in the US, and the beginning of a new era of digital TV.

But 7 April 2009 is by no means fixed in stone. More likely, it will become the US Senate’s latest bone of contention.

The bill as it stands now is lean and straight to the point. Like other telecommunications bills, including the one which provided for the breakup of the Bell System, the Digital Transition Act (DTPSA) seeks to amend the landmark Communications Act of 1934. The Act currently contains a hard date of 31 December 2006 - for that date to have been met, the auction of spectrum by the Federal Communications Commission would had to have already taken place last June.

It’s no longer the "SAVE-LIVES Act," no longer an attachment to the National Intelligence Reform Act of 2004, and is no longer ostensibly for public emergencies or anti-terrorism. But the DTPSA bill’s principal purpose remains to auction off the broadcast spectrum reclaimed by the FCC from the "public airwaves," and use most of the funds to help public service agencies obtain the new equipment they will need to broadcast and coordinate operations under the new frequencies. The VHF spectrum of TV frequencies in the 700 MHz band have lower interference than the 1900 PCS frequencies in the 1 GHz+ range, and are thus more valuable to first responders who need the ability to communicate with one another through underground passageways, tunnels, and collapsed structures.

The prior SAVE-LIVES Act had planned to raise $468 million through the auction of broadcast spectrum, all but $5 million of which would have been applied to a fund to subsidize the purchase of set-top digital-to-analog converter boxes for individuals who intend to continue receiving broadcast signals through their terrestrial antennas. Despite its title, that bill would have benefited public safety officials only indirectly, as they would have had to pay for not only the frequencies they intend to use, but the totally new equipment needed to communicate on those frequencies.

The DTPSA bill addresses this problem in a way quite familiar to followers of Congress : The Congressional Budget Office predicted that the FCC could raise as much as $10 billion through the auction. So assuming that goal is met - and there is good reason to believe it will be - the first $3 billion raised will go toward the set-top subsidy. With the current ballpark estimates the Committee is working with, the allocation should be able to purchase 60 million converter boxes. (There are an estimated 297.5 million citizens in the United States. Among that lot, the National Association of Broadcasters estimates there are at least 73 million TV receivers relying exclusively upon broadcast signals.)

Following that $10 billion allocation, in order of priority, $200 million would be allotted to help low-power television stations make the expensive conversion to digital broadcasting, then $1.25 billion would be allotted for various purposes "to facilitate emergency communications," including an "interoperability fund" to help develop coordinated communications systems among different state and federal agencies, and a new national alert system.

Once other allotments have been exhausted, the remaining $5 billion or more will be transferred back to the US Treasury. This transfer enabled the bill to qualify as a "budgetary line item," which is a requirement of the Senate’s so-called "Byrd rule :" that any bill discussed within a certain interim period of Congress must address at least one budget item, either as an expenditure or revenue, or both.

Most notably, however, the DTPSA bill does not address with so much as a subparagraph one of the main focuses of debate during Committee hearings last July : the so-called must-carry provision. As the law currently reads, cable TV (CATV) operators are obligated to carry the signals of broadcasters in their respective coverage areas. Digital broadcasting enables TV stations to carry multicast signals - as many as four simultaneous broadcasts, on subdivisions of their allotted frequencies. Cable and satellite services are opposed to a situation where they would be forced to carry all four signals over their services, especially when many multicast channels supplied from 24-hour full-time national feeds anyway, such as NBC’s Weather-Plus channel. Satellite operators are especially opposed to the idea of carrying the same multicast frequency over perhaps hundreds of separate channels redundantly.

The strategy of Commerce Committee chairman Sen. Ted Stevens (R - Alaska) may be to separate the debatable issues from the DTV transition issues, with the intention of passing the "hard date" as a deadline for warring parties to settle their disputes. So far, representatives from the NAB, the Consumer Electronics Association (representing the converter box manufacturers), and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association have all voiced their support for the DTPSA bill, citing how it minimizes consumer disruption - which can be taken to mean, the strategy is working. At one point yesterday, Stevens alluded to the possibility of new bills to be introduced next week addressing unspecified provisions, but without saying which ones.

Hanging his gallant head in defeat yesterday was Sen. John McCain (R - Arizona), whose last-minute amendment that would have pushed the "hard date" forward to 7 April 2007, was soundly defeated in a 17 5 vote to end debate.

"In some places in New Orleans, the towers were down, there were places all over the coast, as the governors of Mississippi and Alabama will tell you, they were unable to communicate with each other because of lack of spectrum. [Senators] should be reminded that they couldn’t talk to each other a few miles from here when the plane impacted the Pentagon, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that the first responders know fully well the difficulties we may have. But the most important thing is their ability to save lives, and it’s very clear that the sooner we get the spectrum to them, the sooner they would be able to communicate with each other in case of emergency."

But senators cited testimony we reported on last July from a representative of the Association of Chiefs of Police, stating that police and sheriff’s officials may need as much as three years to be able to procure the equipment needed to utilize the reclaimed spectrum. Nearly all this time is spent processing legislative and bureaucratic paperwork, according to testimony, which may not be expedited - and may even be further delayed - on account of federal assistance in procurement.

Speaking out against the McCain amendment, Sen. George Allen (R - Virginia) said, "There’s a reason why [Sen. Stevens] picked April 7, 2009, as opposed to January 1, 2009. That is a practicality. As much as we’d all wish this had been done years ago, and everyone were assimilated and ready for it, they’re not yet ready. So I think the 2009 date [is] in the interest of consumers...Let’s make sure that when this transition is done, it is done with the least amount of disruptions for consumers out there in the real world. So I will reluctantly oppose Sen. McCain’s amendment."

From here, the bill goes to the full Senate for debate and for a vote, although a formal schedule has yet to be set. If it passes the Senate, it will move to a conference committee, where its language would be reconciled with that of a similar bill introduced in the House of Representatives. The emerging bill would then be voted on yet again, and if successful, will be moved to the President’s desk for his signature. Hopefully all this happens prior to the start of "March Madness" in 2009.

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