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Some DTV Issues Could Make Telecom Bill

Lisa Sutherland,  staff director for Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), says that the senator hopes to roll some of the unresolved DTV issues into the 1996 Telecom Act rewrite being marked up in his committee next month.

The issues were unresolved after Senate rules required the DTV hard date bill to confine itself to that date and the establishment of a subsidy for DTV converter boxes since both involved money (funds for the converter and revenues from the auction of reclaimed analog spectrum after the DTV conversion), and the bill was a budget reauthorization  measure limited to money-related items only.

One DTV issue the committee is likely to approve, said Sutherland, is the broadcast flag, which protects DTV broadcasts from unauthorized digital redistribution. At recent hearings, the committee seemed in general agreement on the need for the flag.

The FCC approved the flag regime, but a court threw it out because it is a post-transmission technology in the TV set, which the court said the FCC did not have jurisdiction over. But the court also said Congress was free to weigh in if it wanted to, and it appears likely to do so, giving the FCC express authority to mandate the flag.

Other issues that could be added to the telecom bill include cable's downconversion of broadcasters DTV signals, and allowing unlicensed wireless devices in the "white areas" between broadcasters' DTV channels.

Stevens has introduced a bill to allow those devices, with built-in protections from interference to broadcasters, though some broadcasters are concerned those protections aren't enough. Sutherland said she had heard from those broadcasters, but also pointed out that in Steven's home state there is plenty of wide open space in the spectrum currently not being used.

It is not clear whether multicast must-carry, atop many broadcasters' wish lists, will make it onto that list of bill additions.

Sutherland praised broadcasters' education efforts on indecency, pointing to the Jack Valenti led V-chip education campaign that launches in May. She suggested the campaign is sorely needed, given that only 3% of American know how to use the V-chip channel-blocking mechanism being mandated in all new sets.

That praise notwithstanding, Sutherland said the committee also plans to take up a bill boosting indecency fines sometime this spring. A

At one point last fall, Stevens had expressed the hope that industry self-regulation,like the v-chip and cable's family tiers--along with a revamp of the ratings system and a ramp-up of consumer education, would obviate the need for any legislation, but he has since conceded some bill is likely.

The house has already passed a bill boosting those fines to a half-million per offense.

Stevens was scheduled to speak at the annual broadcasters conference Tuesday, but was a no-show, citing pressing matters on the Hill. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) said it had to do with ethics reform.