Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) introduced S.2820, "A bill to ensure the availability of certain spectrum for public safety entities by amending the Communications Act of 1934 to establish January 1, 2009, as the date by which the transition to digital television shall be completed, and for other puropses."
Wired News: Uncle Sam Wants Your Airwaves
The bill highlights a congressional conundrum. On one hand, lawmakers are loath to turn off analog signals all at once, which would render an estimated 45 million analog TV sets -- those not hooked up to a cable or satellite service or to a digital-to-analog converter box -- utterly useless. And they are reluctant to spend money on any program that smacks of corporate favoritism.
Instead of waiting for the marketplace to set the pace of transition to digital television, the legislation would spend $1 billion to compensate Americans who rely on over-the-air broadcast television for analog sets and lack cable, satellite or digital TV tuners.
In order to ease the transition to DTV, the FCC granted television broadcast licensees additional spectrum, at no cost, in order to enable a transition period where both analog and digital signals are broadcast, with the intention that the licensees would return the extra spectrum at the end of a brief transition period.
The transition period to DTV is occurring much more slowly than initial forecasts. Under the current law, broadcasters can keep the analog spectrum until 2007 or until after at least 85 percent of households can receive broadcast DTV signals, whichever comes last. That transition will not occur by 2007 at current rates. eMarketer predicts that only 60.4% of households will have the capability to receive DTV by 2007.
The extra spectrum that is used by broadcasters during the transition period would provide substantially more benefits the public if it is auctioned off to the highest bidder or used for public services. The auctions would likely generate significantly more revenue than the $1 billion needed to compensate analog television owners.
For discussion: would a sudden transition to digital broadcast violate the Takings Clause if analog television owners are not compensated?
Before the text of the bill has even been posted to Thomas, Wired News reports: Broadcasters Gut Digital TV Bill
n a markup of the bill in the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), along with Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-South Carolina), successfully put forth an amendment erasing the 2009 deadline favored by McCain. It also would require the broadcasters to give up just four 6-MHz channel slots in the UHF band (TV channels 63, 64, 68 and 69).
Under the amendment, which the committee passed in a 13-9 vote, the broadcasters wouldn't have to give anything back at all in a particular market if the Federal Communications Commission concluded that such a move would create a "consumer disruption" -- the two key words. Critics fear broadcasters could get that ruling in many markets.