Dingell to NAB: Your Spectrum's at Risk

Washington— U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving member of the House, warned broadcasters that a plodding digital transition could put their analog spectrum at risk.

In a speech here last Monday, Dingell said budget deficits and public-safety needs could combine to prompt Congress to seize the analog spectrum and auction it to the highest bidder.

"This transition is going to have to be completed with all due speed because the wolves are howling at your door. They want your spectrum," Dingell said at a National Association of Broadcasters forum held in a downtown hotel.

Every U.S. TV station was loaned a second channel to make the digital transition. Congress and the Federal Communications Commission would like the analog channels returned to the government no later than Dec. 31, 2006.

Fear of backlash

But current law allows TV stations to keep their analog licenses until 85 percent of households in a given market have digital reception equipment.

Consumers who don't have digital TVs or set-tops at the time the analog spectrum is reclaimed would lose analog-TV service. As a result, some lawmakers are worried about a political backlash from terminating analog TV prematurely.

That Dingell, the most senior Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, would suggest an analog spectrum take-back before digital TV sets and converters had saturated the market seemed to clash with views of the political dangers from orphaning millions of analog TVs.

In a related matter, Dingell said the political forces taking shape could spark congressional interest in President Bush's tax plan to collect $500 million per year starting in 2007 from TV stations that have not yielded their analog spectrum.

"Until now, this proposal has not found many friends in Congress, but soaring deficits and other financial problems for this nation make the idea of a squatters' tax look better to many," Dingell said.

But Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, told the same NAB audience prior to Dingell's appearance that Bush's tax plan was "DOA" — dead on arrival.

Tauzin warning

An aide to House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) told the NAB audience that the lawmaker would continue to push to reclaim the analog spectrum in 2006.

Jessica Wallace, Tauzin's telecommunications counsel, said he intends to offer legislation in a few weeks that would require the return of analog spectrum no later than Dec. 31, 2006, echoing a provision contained in draft legislation last year.

"Billy hasn't given me any indication of taking it out. At this point, I expect it to stay in," Wallace said.

The legislation — designed to hasten the transition to digital-only terrestrial broadcasting — is expected to move through the committee at a brisk pace.

Wallace indicated that hearings and full-committee votes could occur prior to the April 14 Easter recess.

"We haven't set out precise timing," she added. "I think we are going to be looking to drop a bill and then move to a hearing and then a markup stage on a fairly quick basis, as opposed to letting some language out. A lot of these issues are not new."

The draft bill banned the FCC from requiring cable carriage of both analog and digital signals during the transition.

Wallace expects to see that provision in the new legislation.