McCain Gets Some Spectrum Back

Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) is known as a maverick who has trouble working with his colleagues, especially Republicans.

Last week, McCain demonstrated that he can be a team player and hammer out a compromise.

The Senate adopted an amendment last Wednesday designed to require some TV stations to give up spectrum by 2008 to accommodate the communications needs of public-safety groups responding to disasters like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.


In a compromise reached in just a few hours, McCain crafted an amendment with Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) that would free up 24 Megahertz in the 700-MHz band no later than Dec. 31, 2007. Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) also worked with McCain.

The spectrum giveback left TV stations a few outs. The Federal Communications Commission could allow TV stations to retain the spectrum if they do not receive “bona fide” requests from public-safety organizations for the airwaves, or if TV stations and public-safety groups can operate on neighboring channels without interference, a McCain aide said.

But the aide said those exceptions would not create big enough loopholes to shut out public safety.

The McCain-Burns amendment, along with related provisions, was added to the national intelligence-reform bill (S. 2845), which might reach the White House this year.

But the McCain-Burns spectrum plan would need to survive a joint House-Senate committee that reconciles dissimilar legislation.

The public-safety spectrum compromise watered down McCain’s original proposal, which called for the return of all analog TV spectrum on Dec. 31, 2008 — a 108-MHz block that the federal government intends to auction for billions of dollars after addressing public-safety spectrum needs.

“This compromise is certainly not what [Burns] wanted and it wasn’t what I wanted,” McCain said on the Senate floor. “This is a way, I think, to achieve the primary recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, which is to free up spectrum for the first responders.”

The amendment, passed by voice vote, placed in doubt about $1 billion in funding for digital set-top boxes for low-income consumers who could lose access to some local stations that had to give up spectrum to public safety.

Although the $1 billion remained in the legislation, there was no mechanism to fund it. Until all of the analog spectrum is returned, the federal government can’t stage an auction and use proceeds to underwrite the cost of set-top converters.

About 75 stations, including the CBS affiliate in Detroit, are potentially affected by the McCain-Burns compromise, according to broadcast industry sources.


McCain’s bill would also require the FCC to quickly decide a long-running dispute between the cable and broadcast industries: Must cable companies carry every programming service that a digital-TV station can pack into its signal? The bill would require the commission to issue “a final decision” on the cable-carriage issue by Jan. 1. FCC staff is planning to recommend cable carriage of all digital-TV multicast services offered free-of-charge .