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Senate Limits FCC’s Digital Waiver Role

Oct 4, 2004  •  Post A Comment

As part of a legislative compromise, the Senate last week approved an amendment that would make it more difficult for some local broadcasters to avoid giving up their frequencies for public safety use.

The amendment dramatically limits the Federal Communications Commission’s leeway to waive a requirement under new legislation that could force the 75 TV stations across the country that operate on Channels 63 through 69 to vacate their frequencies for public safety use as of Jan. 1, 2008.

As originally approved by the Senate Commerce Committee last month, the public safety legislation would have given the FCC such broad discretion to waive the bill’s spectrum-eviction requirements that the requirements would be rendered essentially impotent, critics charged.

But under an amendment brokered last week by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the measure was revised to ensure that the frequencies will be freed for public safety agencies that request them in their communities.

The amendment, which was attached to the National Intelligence Reform Act, “provides the certainty that public safety is seeking,” Sen. McCain said.

In a surprise move, the new amendment also axed a provision added to the Senate Commerce Committee bill by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., that would have required the FCC to establish guidelines requiring TV stations to offer some independently produced programming, local news and other locally originated shows.

Must-Carry Unresolved

The amendment continues to include provisions requiring the FCC to act on long-pending proceedings to resolve the broadcasting industry’s digital must-carry rights and determining their digital public interest requirements by Jan.1.

In his remarks on the Senate floor last week, Sen. McCain made clear he would have preferred that the Senate approve a bill that would have required all TV stations to convert to digital and vacate their analog channels by Jan. 1, 2009.

But in the interest of trying to get legislation approved this year, Sen. McCain endorsed the compromise limiting the spectrum-eviction requirements to the 75 TV stations operating on Channels 63-69.

On a related front last week, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, told broadcasters he planned to promote legislation next year that could force them to make the switch to digital as early as Dec. 31, 2006.

Rep. Barton also predicted there would be strong pressure to legislate on the subject because government auctions of the broadcasters’ analog channels are expected to raise billions of dollars that could be used to help slash the federal budget deficit.

“The primary reason we’re going to do it is real simple: It’s dollars,” Rep. Barton told the Association for Maximum Service Television in Washington.