Calling first responder communications problems during the 9/11 attacks and recent Gulf Coast hurricanes a "Tower of Babel," former Deputy Director of Homeland Security Asa Hutchison Wednesday called on Congress to move up the hard date for the return of broadcasters' analog spectrum to early 2008 from the anticipated 2009 hard date.
That is the date broadcasters would switch to digital-only broadcasting and the government would get to hand over some to first responders and auction most for billions of dollars.
But in his commentary in the Washington Times, Hutchison also said the problem of emergency communications was not primarily one of bandwidth, but instead of '"inadequate radios and other devices." FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has suggested that so-called "smart radios," which seek out unused frequencies, might help with that problem.
David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, agrees with Hutchison that the issue is not primarily one of spectrum. "There are a number of markets in the U.S. that currently are not using the channels that have already been assigned to public safety," he says, "which include chs. 63, 64, 68, 69). For example, there are no full power TV stations operating on those channels in New Orleans."
The 2008 date would be a compromise between 2009 and the 2007 date an angry Sen. John McCain and former 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean have recently pushed.
Broadcasters are concerned that McCain will get traction for his proposal to move up the hard date.
Since the invocation of Hurricane Katrina has great power in Washington these days, it is possible a compromise could push up the date, but it is still unlikely.
Beyond the problems with turning off the analog signal before the population has been sufficiently prepped and analog-only viewers accommodated, there is the issue of money.
According to a Hill source, the Congressional Budget Office found that the further back the date goes, the more valuable the spectrum becomes and the more money will go to the U.S. Treasury.
Congress will need that money to make sure that analog viewers are not left with snow when the DTV switch is pulled. That, too, could be a communications problems in emergencies, not to mention an issue at the polls when legislators try to get re-elected.
When asked by McCain last week whether he supported moving up the digital transition date, Stevens responded: "Of course I do, but I can't do it because we have to put it in reconciliation [a budget bill in which committees outline the money they will bring to the treasury] in order to get the credit we need to pay for the things that are associated with that process, particularly in terms of the converter boxes and the other things we have to do.
"We have to have the money in the budget process before we can get the other legislation that spends that money."