McCain Calls for Earlier Switch to Digital TV

U.S. Senator John McCain will push for an earlier transition of analog television spectrum to emergency response organizations, saying the April 2009 deadline proposed in a Senate draft bill could cost lives during crisis.

Many people in the New Orleans area died after Hurricane Katrina because police and other emergency responders did not have the radio spectrum they need to communicate with each other, said McCain, an Arizona Republican. McCain and other backers of a digital television (DTV) transition say the upper 700MHz spectrum would allow for powerful, long-range wireless signals that emergency response groups can use to better communicate with each other.

"I’m embarrassed to stand before you today and know that some of the human tragedy that took place as a result of Hurricane Katrina could have been avoided if Congress had acted in a more timely fashion," McCain said at a New America Foundation forum on DTV transition in Washington, D.C.

Joining McCain in calling for a quick transition were Greg Meffert, chief information officer for the city of New Orleans and Tim Roemer, a member of the 9/11 Commission and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.

"Lives were lost because of what we didn’t have," Meffert said of emergency communications after Hurricane Katrina. "If this spectrum had been available Aug. 28, 2005, a lot of things would’ve been different." Katrina made landfall near New Orleans Aug. 29.

McCain, whose Save Lives bill would establish a late 2008 deadline, plans to push for a late 2006 or early 2007 deadline for television broadcasters to abandon the spectrum, he said. A hearing on amending DTV transition legislation is scheduled Thursday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and a committee draft bill would set the transition in April 2009, after the U.S. college basketball tournament.

Waiting another four years, after Congress has failed to act on 9/11 Commission emergency spectrum recommendations, is too long, McCain said. "Can we really afford to wait until 2009 before we go ahead and transfer this spectrum?" he said. "I thought it should’ve happened many years ago."

The 9/11 Commission, established by U.S. President George Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Washington, D.C., area, recommended additional radio spectrum for first responders after reports of police and firefighters not being able to communicate with each other or with rescue helicopters in the air. Four years after the terrorist attacks, many of the same things happened in New Orleans, with rescue helicopters unable to communicate with rescuers on the ground, Roemer said.

Since the terrorist attacks, emergency responders are on the "front line," much the way soldiers are, Roemer said. "We cannot simply say, ’You have two tin cans and a string, try to talk to one another,’" he said. "We need to make sure these people are communicating quickly and saving lives."

McCain complained that Congress has too often sided with the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in the DTV debate. NAB has until recently opposed a DTV transition deadline. Under current law, broadcasters are required to give up their analog spectrum by the end of 2006, but only in television markets where 85 percent of homes can receive digital signals.

In December 1997, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted to reallocate some frequencies in the band for TV channels 60-69 to public safety and new commercial uses, in exchange for the digital spectrum TV stations received. Most television markets would never reach the 85 percent digital threshold now in law without a hard DTV deadline, say critics including McCain.

"It’s not a proud moment" when the NAB continues to exert influence over Congress in the DTV transition debate, McCain said. An NAB spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for a comment.

Millions of U.S. homes still have analog TV sets, and local broadcasters have raised concerns that many viewers will no longer be able to receive television signals after a transition to DTV. Although cable TV customers wouldn’t be affected -- cable service can convert digital signals to work with analog TV sets -- Congress is still wrestling with a way to help those analog over-the-air TV viewers. Congress has not yet resolved whether to provide subsidies for analog TV owners to buy digital converter boxes. The converters would cost about US$50, and some lawmakers have called for all analog TV owners to get a subsidy, while others have proposed a needs-based subsidy or none at all.

Digital television technology also allows local broadcasters to broadcast multiple signals in the frequency band taken up by one analog signal. Local broadcasters want Congress to require cable TV providers to carry those multiple signals, but cable operators have objected, saying they have limited space to carry several new channels. Debate over the so-called "must-carry" issue continues as Congress moves toward a DTV transition bill.

Many telecommunications carriers and Internet service providers see the commercial chunk of the 700MHz spectrum as perfect for offering new wireless services. Each wireless tower transmitting in the 700MHz band can cover twice as large a geographic area as a tower transmitting in the 1900MHz band, where many cell phones operate, say backers of a DTV transition. That makes the 700MHz better for long-range data services such as WiMax and for rural broadband services.

By Grant Gross, IDG News Service

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