Analog cutoff bill blocked

WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday rejected a White House proposal to make it illegal for broadcasters to use their current analog channel after Dec. 31, 2006.

The Federal Communications Commission has targeted 2006 as the deadline for turning off broadcasters’ current analog channel — effectively forcing both consumers and the industry to switch cold turkey to digital television. The White House wants to write that FCC policy into law.

But an amendment sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) deleted the White House proposal from a bill pending in the Senate Commerce Committee. The Burns amendment passed 15-6, over the objections of Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Az.).

McCain wants to write the digital deadline into law, claiming that a speedy switch to digital technology was part of a deal that has already resulted in broadcasters getting a second channel for digital broadcasting for free.

“For us to say they don’t have to comply with what they’ve agreed to is just foolish,” said a frustrated McCain, adding, “It seems to me that we are playing fast and loose with the assets of the American taxpayer.”

McCain noted that the FCC has estimated that the analog spectrum could be worth as much as $20 billion on the open market. Both the FCC and the Congressional Budget Office have lowered their estimates of the spectrum value during the last year and a half as the airwave market has cooled. The CBO’s last estimate pegged the analog channels’ worth at $5.4 billion.

McCain did succeed in winning two votes aimed at keeping broadcasters’ feet to the fire when it comes to their valuable airwaves. In the first decision, McCain undercut a House Commerce Committee decision to allow broadcasters to keep their second channel unless 95% of households in their markets could receive a digital signal.

An amendment approved by McCain’s committee undermined the House voted by changing the emphasis from reception of a digital TV signal to “access” to a digital signal.

Under McCain’s proposal, the government can reclaim the channel as long as least 95% of a market has “access” to a digital signal. An aide to McCain defined access loosely as the option of receiving a digital signal via broadcast or cable. A home located within the reach of a digitally compatible cable system would be considered to have access to digital TV, even if the occupant is not a cable subscriber, said the McCain aide.

McCain also defeated a proposal that would have allowed the FCC to defer auctions of broadcasters’ current analog channels until well after the 2002 deadline set by congressional budgeteers and the Clinton administration.

Congressional bean counters have assigned both the House and Senate Commerce Committees to find at least $26 billion from spectrum auctions which will be used to offset the federal budget.

On Tuesday the Congressional Budget Office reviewed the House’s proposal on spectrum auctions and ruled that it would raise only $9 billion. That valuation means that the House Commerce Committee must go back to the drawing board to find additional revenue.

But as the reality of spectrum value clashes with the needs of the budget, several members of Congress have noted that budgeteers don’t seem interested in the true value of the spectrum as long as the speculative revenue from the auctions bridges the multibillion dollar holes in the budget.

Even McCain conceded that plugging holes in the budget with spectrum revenue had degenerated into “a game and a charade.”

And Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) called the Committee’s efforts to balance the budget with airwave auctions “a grand fraud.”

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