'Safe' Dropped on Broadcasters

Reps charge that they hog spectrum that could save lives

Two days after broadcasters patted themselves on the back for covering weather disasters and other emergencies, two lawmakers hit them with charges of hogging spectrum and endangering public safety.

"I'm disgusted with broadcasters. They haven't considered safety ahead of profits," Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) told the House Telecommunications Subcommittee last week, pushing his bill to force transfer of TV chs. 63, 64, 68 and 69 to local police and emergency personnel by Dec. 31, 2006.

"Those broadcasters have kids in school that could be killed in an attack" when poorly coordinated communications hamper spectrum-famished police and rescue teams, added Jane Harmon (D-Calif.), the bill's co-sponsor.

Both lawmakers attacked broadcasters for holding on to vast amounts of spectrum, much of it the lawmakers see as underutilized, at time when others are searching for frequencies that can save lives or house new technology services that could jump-start the flagging economy.

Unsurprisingly, broadcasters disagree. "Broadcasters can put our track record of providing breaking news and information that can save lives up against any other industry or technology," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

The legislators' broadsides, unleashed less than 48 hours after the National Association of Broadcasters handed out annual "Service to America" awards for members stations' public-service programming and activities, could be easily dismissed as over-the-top rhetoric. But the demands of public-safety organizations in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, coupled with the need to get new wireless products on the market, will keep pressure on broadcasters and the government to make the digital switch so that broadcast spectrum is returned to the feds as quickly as possible.

More broadcast-friendly policymakers conceded as much last week. "There's too much spectrum in this [broadcast] space," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said last week at the cable industry's National Show.

The FCC chairman promised to move quickly on several DTV proceedings aimed at building industry support for the budding service and speeding consumer adoption. Upton, along with Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), promised to spearhead any needed legislation covering areas on which the FCC can't tread.

Accelerating the DTV transition is critical to public-safety officials because new spectrum won't be freed up until Americans adopt digital TV in sufficient numbers to trigger the analog give-back.

Although the government penciled in the end of 2006 as a target date, no station is required to relinquish analog spectrum until 85% of households in its market can receive a digital signal. Few expect that level to be reached by then.

Although media-savvy policymakers like Powell, Tauzin and Upton know it would be foolhardy to shut off millions of constituents' TVs by setting a drop-dead reclamation date of December 2006, they promised to put DTV-promoting rules and legislation at the top of their priority list.

Powell said the commission will soon tackle a laundry list of outstanding DTV-related rules, including the extent of broadcasters' cable carriage rights in the digital world, copy-protection methods, and standards for "plug-and-play" cable-ready TV sets. Settling all those issues are key to making digital attractive to consumers.

The hottest issue will be cable carriage, under which broadcasters want must-carry for all the free-to-viewers programming they can shoehorn into their 6 MHz over-the-air channels. Powell planned to grant that wish over cable-industry objections last summer, but a vacancy on the commission left his initiative stranded in a 2-2 deadlock. He hopes a full slate of commissioners will lead to settlement of the carriage issue soon.

He hasn't confirmed whether the new initiative will be much different from last year's, but, last week, he implied that offering more than today's single broadcast channel is one burden pay-TV distributors must bear if consumers are to have an incentive to buy digital sets. "There is not a digital transition unless cable and DBS put in high-value content," he said.

Powell may need help on that one, and lawmakers appear ready to step in. An aide to Upton said cable carriage is likely to be topic number one when his boss and Tauzin resume industry powwows aimed at ironing out their differences. After a new round of meetings with warring industry groups and at least one public hearing, House leaders say they will introduce a new digital television bill in mid to late summer.