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Commerce Slates Katrina Communications Hearing

The Senate Commerce Committee has scheduled a full hearing Sept. 22 on "Communications in a Disaster."

Panelists have not been picked yet, but the hearing will be divided into two parts.

The first will deal with protection of critical communications infrastructure in a disaster (keeping such equipment well above the flood plain, for example).

The second will deal with communications for first responders. That is the part most likely to see some fireworks over broadcasters' return of analog spectrum.

The committee is also supposed to look into an emergency alert system that would be a co-production of NOAA and the FCC, though that could come up in the hearing on the lifesaving role of hurricane prediction Sept. 20. The president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters is scheduled to testify in that hearing.

Hurricane Katrina combined with the timing of House and Senate bills on a date for the return of analog spectrum have combined to put the issue of communications for first resonders in prime time on Capitol Hill.

Some of the returned analog spectrum is earmarked for police and firemen.

Sen. John McCain, with the vocal backing of former 9/11 commission members, has called for passage of his analog spectrum reclamation bill, the SAVE LIVES Act, and even wants to move up the return date in the bill from 2009 to 2007.

McCain continues to assert that lives have been lost due to the slow pace of the digital switch, which he has ascribed to foot-dragging broadcasters. Broadcasters, who have already committed to a 2009 hard date, have countered that they are already serving a life-saving, first-responder role themselves in providing critical news and info during a storm.