Spectrum Bill Vote Scheduled

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The Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday is scheduled to vote on legislation requiring broadcasters to return their old analog channels to the federal government by Jan. 1, 2009, but even some fans of the return have problems with the legislation.

The legislation, sponsored by committee chairman John McCain, also would create a $1 billion fund to cover the cost of either subsidized converter boxes needed to keep old analog sets working in the all-digital age or hooking viewers who rely solely on over-the-air signals to cable.

McCain is pushing the bill, dubbed the SAVE LIVES Act (or the "Spectrum AVailability for Emergency-response and Law-enforcement to Improve Vital Emergency Services act), to speed the take-back and get some of the reclaimed channels into the hands of public safety departments.

The move would implement an important recommendation of the 9/11 commission, which found that spectrum shortages contributed to emergency agencies’ difficulty in communicating with each other during the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“Now is the time for congressional action before another national emergency or crisis takes place,” McCain said in a written statement.

The $1 billion TV conversion fund would come from the $30 billion or more the government expects to generate auctioning portions of the reclaimed channels to commercial users.

The bill is opposed by consumer activists, who say the $1 billion fund isn’t enough to cover conversion of the 73 million analog TV sets and no provisions are made to assist alternative media, such as allocating spectrum for unlicensed communications equipment or earmarking funds for noncommercial or community media.

The Consumer Federation of American and Free Press said they support the reallocation of spectrum for public safety, but complained other provisions of the bill fail to “adequately protect consumers from the burden of a forced transition to digital broadcasting.”

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