Despite a rebuke by a Senate committee last week, Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell is pushing ahead with a plan to require TV stations to return their old analog channels sooner than they had expected.
The Senate Commerce Committee last week voted to require only a small portion of the country’s 1,300 TV stations to return old channels early. But Powell insists the transition to digital television will take decades unless an aggressive timetable is set for every broadcaster. What matters most, he says, is that the returned channels are for police and fire departments, many of which desperately need the frequencies to revamp patchwork communications.
“A nationwide, hard date for the end of the DTV transition would benefit everyone,” Powell had told the committee Sept. 8. “Right now, we have no clear idea when the transition will be over in any particular market.”
Powell plans to present the FCC a final version of his plan in time for a November or December vote, but for him to prevail, commissioners must dismiss the slower approach of the Commerce Committee--passed over the objections of Chairman John McCain--the Senate’s main overseer of the FCC and communications policy.
The National Association of Broadcasters, which lobbied for the amendment that softened the hard giveback date, effectively pushed aside legislation mirroring Powell’s plan to take all analog channels by 2009.
The panel voted 13-9 for NAB's less aggressive alternative sponsored by former broadcaster Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) that would set a deadline for reclaiming only Ch. 62 and higher, which are partially earmarked for transfer to police, fire and other emergency departments around the country. His plan would transfer those channels by Jan. 1, 2008, one year sooner than Powell’s plan.
Powell plans to resurrect his plan’s chances soon. Separate provisions in the legislation passed last week order the FCC to decide by Jan. 1 how extensive broadcasters’ cable and satellite carriage rights should be after the digital turnover. Under the same deadline, the commission must also set broadcasters’ public-interest obligations.
Agency staff already plans to add complete must-carry rights for broadcasters into the spectrum-take-back plan. Democratic commissioners for years have been demanding public-interest obligations, such as local programming and news and political-coverage quotas. If Powell throws in those sweeteners, Commerce Committee members might rethink opposition to his 2009 deadline.