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Spectrum-Reclamation Amendment Passes

A compromise spectrum-reclamation amendment passed the Senate Wednesday.

The amendment would require broadcasters occupying channels 62-69 to give up their analog spectrum by Dec. 31, 2007--earlier than other broadcasters must turn over theirs--but allow them to keep it longer if giving it up would disrupt viewers and no first responders are actively seeking the channel.

The wording was a compromise between Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, who wanted the hard giveback date, and Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who wanted to give broadcasters plenty of waiver wiggle room.

McCain argued that the waiver was a loophole that allowed broadcasters to drag their feet on the DTV switch while keeping the spectrum from the emergency communications personnel that say they need it.

McCain cited a hearing he held in 1997 on emergency communications that featured testimony about the failure of emergency communications during the Oklahoma City bombing. "That hearing was seven years ago. We are no better off today. Nothing has changed." He then invoked 9/11 communications problems, saying "nothing has changed.

"We can't wait for decades, for another Oklahoma City or Pentagon or New York, and hope broadcasters will operate in the best interest of the public rather than themselves. We have to act now."

Burns countered that broadcasters themselves provide emergency communications and that the spectrum could be found elsewhere.

In the end, they met somewhere in the middle, though it seemed more on the side of Burns and broadcasters.

Also on the broadcasters' side was the elimination of an amendment--from N.J. Democrat Frank Lautenberg-- that would have established guidelines for DTV public interest obligations. There is also a billion dollars earmarked from spectrum auctions to help buy DTV converters for viewers who can't afford them, but McCain suggested the absence of a hard date for that reclamation meant there would be not money either for the boxes or to help fund emergency communications.

McCain suggested NAB's support for the compromise was tantamount to selling out the 62-69 stations, many Hispanic and religious, and though he endorsed the compromise, asked the FCC and the House Commerce Committee to investigate its "discriminatory treatment" of those stations.