Laying the groundwork for a new legislative confrontation with broadcasters next year over the digital television transition, Congress approved a measure last week that endorses a proposal to force the industry to switch to DTV by Dec. 31, 2006.
To the relief of broadcasters, the measure, included as an amendment to a bill reforming the nation’s intelligence bureaucracy, doesn’t compel the industry to actually make the switch. Instead, the measure is a “sense of the Congress” resolution that only puts the opinion of lawmakers into an official record.
But industry sources said the passage of the measure all but guarantees that proposals to expedite the transition will be on the front burner in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill on Jan. 3 to launch the new congressional session.
“It has no force of law, but it will put pressure on the industry to come up with some sort of resolution to the DTV transition next year,” one broadcast industry source said.
“This creates a buzz that can only help as the FCC and the 109th Congress consider expediting the DTV transition,” said Peter Pitsch, communications policy director for Intel, which is part of a coalition of high-tech companies lobbying for a firm deadline for the transition.
After the switch to DTV, broadcasters are supposed to return their analog channels to the government. Intel and the other companies hope to then use these channels for wireless broadband and other services.
The resolution, originally promoted by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, is significant also because it explicitly rejects a National Association of Broadcasters compromise that would have focused the DTV transition pain exclusively on 75 TV stations that operate on channels 63-69.
Under the NAB-backed provision, which was included in the Senate’s version of the intelligence reform legislation, only those stations would have had to clear their frequencies for public safety use as of Jan. 1, 2008.
The provision was the legislative price the NAB had to pay to derail a bill in the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this year that would have required all TV broadcasters to vacate their analog channels by Jan. 1, 2009.
But House and Senate leaders axed the 63-69 provision in a conference on the intelligence reform legislation, and instead included Rep. Barton’s resolution in the package.
The Barton resolution says NAB’s 63-69 plan “would neither address the digital television transition in a comprehensive fashion nor free valuable spectrum for advanced commercial services.”
Under the existing DTV transition ground rules, broadcasters don’t have to make the switch until 85 percent of the TV homes in their communities are able to receive DTV signals-something that many observers fear may not happen for a decade or more.
Rep. Barton and other leading lawmakers want to set a firm deadline for the transition in order to get back broadcasters’ analog TV channels for public safety use and spectrum auctions that are expected to raise billions of dollars for the federal treasury.