|Broadcasters Gut Digital TV Bill |
By Michael Grebb
Story location: wired.com
WASHINGTON -- Two words.
That was all it took to gut a bill introduced Tuesday by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) to force broadcasters to give back all of their beachfront analog TV spectrum by Jan. 1, 2009. The government would then give some of the spectrum to emergency workers and sell off the rest to telecommunications companies planning broadband wireless services.
The Spectrum Availability for Emergency-Response and Law-Enforcement to Improve Vital Emergency Services Act -- or the Save Lives Act -- also would have provided a $1 billion subsidy to help those without cable, satellite or digital TV tuners pay for equipment that would enable them to go digital.
In a markup of the bill in the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), along with Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-South Carolina), successfully put forth an amendment erasing the 2009 deadline favored by McCain. It also would require the broadcasters to give up just four 6-MHz channel slots in the UHF band (TV channels 63, 64, 68 and 69).
Under the amendment, which the committee passed in a 13-9 vote, the broadcasters wouldn't have to give anything back at all in a particular market if the Federal Communications Commission concluded that such a move would create a "consumer disruption" -- the two key words. Critics fear broadcasters could get that ruling in many markets.
McCain blasted those two words as "clever language" inserted by lobbyists at the National Association of Broadcasters, or NAB. He said such broad terminology could be used by broadcast interests to perpetually block any return of spectrum. He also objected to the thwarting of the purpose of the bill, which was to give the spectrum to public safety agencies and emergency first responders.
"In the Burns amendment, they have created a loophole a mile wide," said McCain, who repeatedly referred to it as "the NAB amendment" as NAB President Edward Fritts sat in the audience. "Consumer disruption is taking priority over moving people off the spectrum."
Before the amendment passed, McCain supporters from both parties pleaded with committee members to vote it down.
"The Burns amendment guts what we're trying to do," said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nevada). Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) said the amendment "nullifies the entire bill. Anyone with a heartbeat can read that and know that."
But supporters said they were worried that the 2009 deadline didn't offer enough wiggle room for each local situation.
"What you call a loophole we call flexibility," said Hollings.
After the vote, McCain told reporters that he's not giving up: He will try to attach his 2009 hard deadline to other legislation related to the 9/11 Commission Report on homeland security.
"There are just too many patriotic people here to let the loophole go forward," he said, arguing that the Burns amendment "seriously impairs our ability to act on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. It's very sad."
The 9/11 Commission Report recommended that Congress do what it can to free up new spectrum for emergency first responders. Officials want to avoid a repeat of the situation on Sept. 11, 2001, in which several fire and police officials couldn't communicate adequately over radio during the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
Consumer advocates worry that the Burns amendment could allow regulators to water down the bill's original intent.
"It definitely creates an opportunity for the FCC to not protect public safety," said Susanna Montezemolo, the legislative representative in Consumers Union's Washington office.
Under current law, broadcasters don't have to relinquish their analog spectrum until 2007 or until after at least 85 percent of American households have the equipment to receive over-the-air digital TV signals, whichever comes last. But few expect Americans to reach the 85-percent threshold for many years.
After the markup, McCain said the Burns amendment actually creates a bigger loophole than the much-maligned 85-percent provision in the current law. McCain also accused broadcasters of "impairing the safety of Americans."
NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton declined to comment on that assertion, but he pointed out that broadcasters have a strong record of reporting emergency information to viewers during disasters and severe weather.
Said NAB's Fritts: "Today's vote balances the legitimate needs of public safety providers while limiting the disruption of local television service to millions of consumers."
After Burns' amendment passed, he offered another amendment that would have created a grant and loan program for TV stations converting to digital. That prompted an already irritated McCain to ask, "Shall we pay Dan Rather's salary, too?"
Burns later withdrew the amendment.
In other action, the committee passed SB2145, the Software Principles Yielding Better Levels of Consumer Knowledge -- or Spy Block -- Act which is sponsored by Burns. The bill seeks to crack down on what many lawmakers see as an epidemic of spyware and adware clogging PCs across the country.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) said lawmakers must "figure out how to come down with hobnail boots" on people who force spyware onto unsuspecting computer users.
In June, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a companion anti-spyware bill, HR2929, the Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass, or Spy Act.
The full House and Senate could hold votes on the bills next week. Lawmakers hope to adjourn for the year Oct. 1.