Congress approved and the president signed into law the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which included a deadline four years later for the transition to digital TV (dtv) broadcasting: Feb. 17, 2009. The legislation also established a coupon program to help consumers with analog TVs purchase digital-to-analog converter boxes.
Since then, all parties have worked to be prepared for the transition. The financial toll of moving the transition dates as some now desire, would be great on many sectors of our economy. The broadcasting industry, cable, and the electronic retailers and manufacturers have spent well over $1 billion on consumer education, technical improvements, employee training, and new digital equipment. Relying on this firm date, wireless carriers have already spent close to $20 billion for the license rights to some of the cleared spectrum. And public safety officials have spent millions in preparation for the spectrum that is supposed to be cleared for them. They spent this money with the belief that the government would actually stick to the Feb. 17, 2009, deadline.
The Senate on Monday approved delaying the transition until June 12. Bypassing the committee process and regular order, the House leadership brought up the Senate bill on Wednesday under an expedited procedure usually reserved for non-controversial bills, but was unable to garner the two-thirds vote required for passage under this procedure. The bill may be brought up again in the House next week under regular order where it could be approved by a simple majority.
Moving back the date would put a financial burden on industry that will be hard for it to swallow in this difficult economic climate. Postponing the date also jeopardizes the government’s credibility when we ask industry to trust us in the future. President Obama and others calling for a delay cite the lack of converter coupons for consumers, raising a legitimate concern that many TV viewers will see their sets “go dark” on Feb. 17.
What is most frustrating is that a solution exists that would not delay the transition. Ranking Member Joe Barton and I, along with 10 cosponsors, introduced H.R. 661, which would get people off the waiting list without delaying the transition.
This bill would authorize $250 million to resume timely distribution of the digital converter box, allow the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to use first class mail to get coupons to consumers faster, and extend the FCC’s authority to auction spectrum another year, to 2012.
This would enable the NTIA to immediately resume distributing additional coupons to those on the waiting list, even before active coupons expire. It is important to point out that much of the $250 million authorized could come back from expired coupons at the end of the program.
The transition also will enhance public safety by providing first responders with 24 MHz of spectrum out of the 700 MHz to establish communications on the same frequencies nationwide. Abandoning the deadline jeopardizes the spectrum to be cleared for the use of our emergency personnel; the spectrum safety officials requested on Sept. 11, 1996, exactly five years before the terrorist attacks. The 9/11 Commission echoed this request and advised that we clear this spectrum years ago.
Earlier this month the leaders of the nation’s public safety organizations wrote to President-elect Obama in opposition to the delay. As they noted, “All fifty states have already received licenses to operate on portions of the new spectrum, and many agencies across the nation have already acquired radios capable of operating in the 700 MHz.” The catastrophes of Hurricane Katrina and September 11 cannot be ignored; our first responders must be prepared for future calamities. A delay in the transition binds the hands that would help us in an emergency.
The transition offers more than better public safety; it would reinvigorate free, over-the-air programming. It would bring to consumers higher-quality video and audio, more channels, and greater interactivity.
Advances in telecommunications yield new industries as well as new products and services for consumers. The enhanced quality of high-definition TV will boost the ability of these broadcasters to compete in the video marketplace of satellites, wireless cable, and video dial tone. This means a future for free TV in America.
The spectrum is a public asset to be used to improve the national well being. I liken the spectrum to America’s public lands of the 19th century. Through the Homestead Act of 1862, the federal government parceled out millions of acres of what it considered worthless western land. A settler received a 160-acre plot of land and the government got a pledge that the land would be cultivated and put to productive use. What was then considered the “great American desert” is now among the most valuable land in the world. The spectrum has similar potential in enriching the nation many times over.
Fifteen years in the making, the transition needs to proceed on schedule and deliver the full benefits of greater public safety, new economic opportunities and more consumer services.
Rep. Cliff Stearns is the ranking Republican on the House Communications, Technology Committee and the Internet Subcommittee.
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