Lawson Pushes DTV-Auction Fund

John Lawson, CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations, pitched a Senate panel Wednesday on a trade of analog spectrum for a trust fund for digital educational programming.

The pitch was not new, but the venue was. Washington has recently been looking into an FCC plan that would speed the transition by expanding the definition digital-ready households to those that receive a digital signal converted to analog.

The House Telecommunications Subcommittee held a hearing on the subject last week, though Lawson was not in attendance.

Lawson told a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the DTV transition that according to a recent poll, 81% of public stations said they would be ready to turn in their spectrum in 2007 if they were assured of cable digital must-carry, including multicast channels, it it were confident analog viewers had access to converter boxes that would allow their analog sets to receive a digital signal, and if the some of the money from government auction of the public broadcasting spectrum were put in a trust fund for noncommercial educational digital programming.

Lawson has put the fund figure at approximately $500 million.

He said that the major benefit of the plan would be the return of spectrum "sooner rather than later."

That was clearly the goal of another hearing panelist, Michael Calabrese of The New America Foundation. He told the Senators that the transition could happen as soon as 2006 if Congress would earmark 10% of auction proceeds for a tax credit that could be applied to a converter, DTV set or satellite or cable hookup.

Calabrese would also make the auctions for 10-year terms, plus an annual user fee.

If Congress doesn't, he said, the transition will run up against the "last granny rule," meaning that the government will not take away spectrum if 15% of viewers could be left wanting (by law, once 85% of households in any market are digital-ready, the government can start reclaiming analog spectrum in that market).

McCain emphasized that key concerns of the committee were both the plight of those 15% and the need to reclaim spectrum for emergency services and others.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.