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Politico wants to move up DTV deadline

John McCain: Emergency responders can't wait four years for analog spectrum to be freed up by broadcasters' switch to digital.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
4 min read
WASHINGTON--A chunk of radio spectrum would be freed up by late 2006 or early 2007 for first responders and those interested in easier deployment of broadband networks, if one senator gets his way.

That requirement could appear as an amendment to a draft digital-television bill currently scheduled for a committee vote on Thursday, said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. The existing bill calls for a "hard deadline" of April 7, 2009, by which all analog broadcasters must give up their piece of the spectrum and switch to all-digital transmission.

"Can we really afford to wait until 2009 to transfer this spectrum?" McCain said at a Tuesday morning policy event here hosted by the New America Foundation. "I don't think so."


What's new:
Sen. John McCain and other lawmakers are pushing for a quick shift to digital television broadcasting, which would free up radio spectrum for use by first responders in emergency situations.

Bottom line:
Although a complete transition to digital TV broadcasts is due by April 7, 2009, under an existing bill, McCain and others want to see it happen by late 2006 or early 2007.

More stories on this topic

The impetus for moving up the deadline, McCain has maintained, is that the television channels on which analog broadcasts operate are occupying valuable spectrum that emergency workers need to communicate with each other. The government plans to allocate a chunk of the freed-up spectrum for that purpose and to auction off the rest for billions of dollars to companies eager to deploy new broadband services.

At Tuesday's event, the senator was backed by several officials who have worked closely with emergency response issues.

Timothy Roemer, who served on the 9/11 Commission, said the group found disjointed communications among emergency officials at Ground Zero and recommended increased spectrum as a solution to the problem. Waiting four more years for the shift is way too long, he said: "I think Congress is neglecting its responsibility to protect its citizens."

Greg Meffert, chief technology officer for the city of New Orleans, said he agreed that the time to act is now. "If this spectrum was available on Aug. 28, 2005," he said, referring to the date Hurricane Katrina struck the port city, "a lot of things would have been different."

Others chalked up the tech benefits that could be derived from the switch. The analog, or 700 MHz, band has been touted for its natural physical properties--that is, theoretically, its signals travel straighter and farther and don't necessarily require a clear line of sight, arguably cutting back on engineering costs.

Robert LeGrande, deputy chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, demonstrated a system called the Wireless Accelerated Responder Network, which 15 public safety agencies in the region have been piloting through an "experimental license" on a piece of the analog spectrum. The system allows public safety officials to talk to each other across thick-walled, cement buildings and in subway tunnels--something they couldn't do as readily at other frequency bands. Users can also share streaming video and images from disparate locations.

LeGrande said his ultimate goal--"to build an interoperable broadband wireless network from the Atlantic to the Pacific"--isn't possible with the current amount of spectrum that's available. He said the Washington, D.C., region is ready to deploy a wireless broadband network for its first responders by next summer, and it's pushing on its own to clear local broadcasters off the spectrum by the end of 2007.

High-tech endorsement, consumer concerns
Enthusiasm for the shift to digital television extends well into the technology realm. On Friday, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and other high-tech officials sent a letter to lawmakers in Congress that urged a speedy transition to DTV, according to an Associated Press report. Freed up radio spectrum, the letter said, could be used in part to supply wireless broadband service to rural and poor areas.

Under current law, the digital television shift was scheduled to occur by Dec. 31, 2006, or whenever 85 percent of households are able to receive digital broadcasts.

From the consumer's standpoint, the switch can be achieved in several ways: buying a television equipped with a digital tuner, buying a digital-to-analog converter box (estimated cost: $50) for one's existing analog television, or relying on cable or satellite signals, the providers of which intend to upgrade as necessary.

By one consumer group's count, as many as 80 million television sets rely on analog signals, and would need to be wired for digital cable or outfitted with the digital-to-analog converter boxes. But by 2009, only about 7 percent of television viewers--still several million--will be relying solely on analog, "over-the-air" broadcasts, according to Consumer Electronics Association estimates.

Licenses to use the newly freed-up spectrum would be put up for sale beginning Jan. 28, 2008, according to the draft proposal. Of the money raised, $4.8 billion would have to be transferred to the general Treasury fund by Oct. 2, 2009, to offset other federal expenses or tax cuts.

Other proceeds would go to a fund specially designated for subsidizing the cost of digital-to-analog converter boxes, converting low-power TV stations from analog to digital, and "providing systems to coastal states affected by hurricanes and other disasters."

That fund would also bankroll programs to implement the Enhance 911 Act of 2004. That measure calls for upgrades to emergency call center answering points so that they can access the "enhanced" 911 network, which is able to pinpoint a caller's geographic location.