Dingell Pushes Subsidy For House Bill

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In an op-ed piece in The Hill newspaper Thursday, John Dingell (D-Mich.), ranking Democrat on the House Commerce Committee, called for putting most of the proceeds from the auction of analog spectrum toward interoperable communications for first responders, as well as a subsidy for digital-to-analog converter boxes.

"It is long-established policy that displaced users of spectrum be compensated for their relocation expenses," Dingell wrote. "Last year, Congress decided to auction spectrum occupied by U.S. government users. In keeping with that policy, Congress created a funding mechanism so that government users did not bear the costs of relocating. We should do no less for ordinary Americans."

The Senate version of a DTV transition bill sets aside $3 billion for a subsidy, at least as it stood before the markup Thursday afternoon, and $1 billion for first responders.

That subsidy would be for all analog-only sets, not just for those who could not afford to pay for them. But there would be a $10 co-pay on each of the $50 boxes for rich and poor alike.

A draft of the House version of the DTV transition bill, to be marked up by Oct. 28, does not contain a subsidy, which troubles Dingell, and does not earmark the majority of the anticipated $10 billion in revenue to emergency communications, which Dingell thinks it should.

However each bill is crafted, the differences will have to be reconciled before passage by Congress.

Full text follows:

The Hill
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Digital-TV debate should focus on consumers, first responders
By Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.)

One of the critical issues facing Congress this fall is how to complete the transition from analog to digital television broadcasting.

If done properly, this transition will produce significant benefits for the public, first responders and wireless innovators. But all will pay if it is not done right.

The good news is that there are many areas of agreement. Most agree that establishing a hard date is necessary to end the transition. There is also general agreement that 2009 is an appropriate timeframe. And, although draft legislation put forward by my Republican colleagues offered no transition assistance for consumers, there now appears to be a growing appreciation of the need to assist consumers in this government-induced change.

The bad news is that House Republicans, to protect their tax cuts, appear intent on limiting this assistance, forcing Americans to reach into their wallets to purchase equipment to keep their television sets working.

Americans continue to buy millions of analog televisions expecting them to work for years to come. More than 23 million analog sets were sold last year. Of all television sets in use, an estimated 73 million are not connected to cable or satellite service. To accomplish the changeover, many of these sets will need converter boxes that are projected to cost between $50 and $60 when manufactured in volume.

Although the government will likely reap at least $10 billion in revenue from auctioning the returned broadcast spectrum, some in Congress want to curtail artificially the amount used to cover transition expenses imposed on ordinary people. That could force millions of consumers to pay a television tax of $20 or more per set just to keep their sets working. Why should ordinary people pay for a government decision that makes their television sets obsolete?

Moreover, nearly 21 million U.S. television households, which are disproportionately low-income and minority, rely exclusively on over-the-air reception. If Congress chooses to accelerate the return of analog broadcast spectrum, why should consumers who rely on this spectrum for their local news, weather and emergency alerts be taxed to pay for it?

It is long-established policy that displaced users of spectrum be compensated for their relocation expenses. Last year, Congress decided to auction spectrum occupied by U.S. government users. In keeping with that policy, Congress created a funding mechanism so that government users did not bear the costs of relocating. We should do no less for ordinary Americans.

The other bad news is that it appears that our Republican colleagues, to protect their tax cuts, will shortchange our first responders instead of devoting most of spectrum proceeds to giving them the ability to communicate with each other. The lack of public-safety interoperability is a major problem, yet it is neither new nor rare. Interoperability problems existed during rescue operations during the 1982 Air Florida crash in the Potomac River, the 1995 attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and both the 1993 and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Adequate funding is the lynchpin to addressing the challenges that stand in the way of achieving interoperability for public safety. We need to replace outdated equipment. We need to pay for the planning and coordinating between appropriate public-safety officials. We need to build redundant communications networks - vitally important in situations such as Hurricane Katrina in which the primary communications infrastructure is damaged or destroyed.

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, the federal government has spent $1.3 billion on interoperable communications. That is far less than the $15 billion the Office of Management and Budget cited in 2003 as a common estimate of the cost of interoperability. Undoubtedly, the cost would be significantly higher, as this number does not always include the costs of retraining, new infrastructure or essential maintenance of new systems.

Using most of the revenue from the auctioning of the returned analog spectrum could provide an important down payment on providing public-safety personnel with the communications equipment needed for them to protect the public safely. Simply providing spectrum, without aggressive funding, will not get the job done.

In 1997, Congress backed into a whimsical 2006 transition target so that it could get scoring credit for the value of the analog spectrum toward its budget numbers. Today, as Congress again considers accelerating the transition to meet budget targets, we would be well-advised to make protecting television viewers and first responders a priority.

The digital-television transition should not force billions of dollars of transition costs on the unsuspecting American people and should not leave first responders without the resources they need.

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