Sen. John McCain launched a public relations campaign against broadcasters Tuesday, warning that TV stations could be blamed in part for future terrorist casualties if they to not relinquish their old analog channels, portions of which are slated to be turned over to fire, police and other emergency departments.
McCain and the mothers of two 9/11 victims said New York City rescue workers' communications problems played a role in the deaths of hundreds killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
At a press conference in the Russell Senate Office Building McCain unveiled legislation he is sponsoring that would force broadcasters to return their old analog channels to the government on Jan. 1, 2009, years sooner than current law requires.
A chunk of that spectrum will be used to alleviate emergency workers' communications woes, which include a shortage of frequencies and lack of interoperability between various departments. The shortcomings of emergencies communications was detailed in the 9/11 Commission's report.
McCain's bill also calls for the federal government to provide a $468 million subsidy for converters required to keep old analog sets working in the all-digital world.
The subsidy would pay for one converter for each of the 9.3 million households with incomes at or below 200% of the poverty line. His bill also contains a measure, opposed by the cable industry, which essentially would leave cable operators no choice but to carry both a digital and an analog version of TV stations signals until 2011.
Mary Fetchet, president of Voices of September 11, said her son Brad might have survived the collapse of the second World Trade Center tower had communications snafus not prevented him from learning there was an open stairwell after the plane hit the second tower. "I believe his death could have been prevented," she said.
Better communications also could have prevented firemen from dying needlessly in the World Trade Center disaster, she said. "It's hard to believe four years have passed and our first responders are no safer than they were on 9/11."
"Congress hasn't acted mainly because want to to keep duplicative channels," Fetchet said. "We can't allow lobbyists to prevent these common sense reforms from going forward."
McCain said broadcasters reneged on promises made during the early part of the debate over creating DTV to quickly return their old analog spectrum, perhaps as early as 2001. Instead, they were able to win a last-minute clause in the 1997 DTV bill allowing them to hold on to their analog channels until 85% of their markets are equipped for digital. "That's an impossible goal to meet," McCain said. "They've got the best of all worlds."
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens plans to introduce his own version of DTV legislation within the next few weeks and McCain said he "wants to work with him and has every expectation of doing so."
So why introduce his own bill?
"I have to act. I was chairman of the Commerce Committee when this issue came up I've been involved since the 9/11 Commission recommendations came out. I'm not abandoning this issue just because I'm not the chairman of the Commerce Committee anymore."
McCain has long been at odds with broadcasters and their main lobbying group, the National Association of Broadcasters. McCain opposed giving TV stations the right to operate two signals, even temporarily, without paying the government anything in return. He also has fought broadcasters over campaign finance reform, particularly his wish to make stations offer free airtime to candidates during election campaigns.
"I've never beaten them. They have perfect record," he said.
Time may be changing, however, because of the need for more public safety spectrum and the desire of Stevens, House Commerce committee Joe Barton and other lawmakers to complete reclaim the old spectrum and finishing the digital transitions
"I think finally we are going to see this become reality," he said. "I hope this year."
McCain's bill was praised by the National League of Cities, which represents municipal governments; the Consumer Electronics Association, whose members want broadcasters to drive set demand with digitial programming; and the High Tech DTV Coalition, whose Silicon Valley members would like to market new wireless consumers services on the portion of reclaimed analog channels not turned over to public safety departments.
NAB President Edward O. Fritts, who only Tuesday night was celebrating the public service efforts of broadcasters, including in times of emergency, responded to McCain's broadside:
"As former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has noted, local television stations provide a lifeline service during terrorist attacks, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters.
"We are committed to completing the digital transition in a timely fashion, including return of analog spectrum, and will work with Congress to ensure that millions of consumers are not left stranded by a premature end to analog broadcasting."