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Commerce Sets 2009 Hard Date

By a vote of 19-3, the Senate Commerce Committee passed a bill to set the hard date of the return of analog spectrum at April 7, 2009.

Only committee Democrats John Kerry, Barbara Boxer and Jay Rockefeller voted against it.

An amendment, offered by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to move the date up to April 7, 2007.

McCain had argued that Katrina communications problems had only put a finer point on his years-long push to get broadcaster's analog spectrum back for police, fire and other emergency communications.

It's the old match-up, said McCain, "between the NAB and first responders. I hope for the first time in history the first responders win." I wasn't even close. The vote was 17-5.

Stevens sweetened the bill for those worrying about emergency communications. The bill sets aside $1.25 billion from the auction for interoperable emergency communications, but he said he and co-chairman Daniel Inouye would introduce an amendment on the floor to borrow the money now so police and fire could get the equipment and be ready when the spectrum is returned.

But he also argued that the McCain 2007 date would strip funding from first responders because according to CBO estimates, the auctions would not raise enough money and it would then have to all go to the general treasury fund to meet the committee's $4.8 billion obligation.

Of the $10 billion from auctions, $3 billion will go to subsidize an analog-to-digital converter box, enough to cover everyone who still has an analog-only set in 2009.

The bill also includes an amendment that says that deficit reduction gets whatever is left over from the spectrum auction proceeds after the $5 billion to the treasury, $3 billion for the subsidy, $1.25 billion for first responders, $250 million for enhanced 911, $200 million for coastal Indian tribes affected by hurricanes, and $75 million for EAS (in this case an aviation service that benefits rural states like those of many on the committee.)

Could that last item have been pork? Sen. George Allen seemed to think so; he was a co-sponsor of the deficit reduction amendment.

In fact, several senators raised the issue of why the money was going where it was going--beyond the subsidy and first responders. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he would have set aside some money for the universal service fund, which helps pay for broadband service to underserved, often poorer and rural areas.

Sen. Kerry suggested that if the EAS were going to get money, why not put aside a couple billion for the coast guard.

He even added some excitement to the proceedings by suggesting that the committee was letting too much money slip through its grasp by designating all the leftovers to deficit reduction. He pointed out that while the congressional budget office pegged the auction at $10 billion, some private estimates pushed double that and beyond.

Kerry also expressed his displeasure with the defeat of the McCain amendment.

"The needs of America's firefighters, police officers, and all of our first responders played second fiddle to narrow interests today," he said in a statement.  "We've talked for years about the importance of getting new spectrum in the hands of our first responders.  But today that priority was a casualty of the clout that powerful interests wield in Congress and a process driven by gimmicks aimed at making a fiscally irresponsible budget more palatable." The win on the hard date, to which broadcasters have agreed, is one of many for NAB, and it couldn't have been better scripted. It gave NAB President Eddie Fritts a going-away present on the day NAB was expected to announce that David Rehr, of the beer wholesalers' lobby, would replace him, probably in December.

NAB's next big challenge will be a second DTV bill necessitated by the Senate parliamentarian. Thursday's bill was stripped of all but the provisions relating to the reclamation of spectrum to square with Senate rules banning extraneous legislation on appropriations bills.

As a result, other DTV issues, including the big one for NAB and the cable industry—mandatory cable carriage of broadcasters multicast signals—were pruned and will be replanted in a second bill the committee will begin discussions on next week, according to Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska.)

Other issues will include setting aside unlicensed spectrum, the broadcast flag copy protection for DTV broadcasts, and whether cable will be allowed to downconvert the DTV signal to its analog customers after the switch.
The committee also passed bills to establish an emergency communications system that includes a variety of new media, and one requiring the government to label its video news releases, though it will be up to the FCC to determine just how.