Senate DTV Transition Bill

On June 14, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) introduced a bill that would set a hard cutoff date of January 1, 2009, for the shutdown of analog over-the-air (OTA) television broadcasting. The bill, formally S.1237, is also known as the SAVE LIVES Act of 2005. Someone worked pretty hard to come up with the words to fit that acronym: Spectrum Availability for Emergency-Response and Law-Enforcement to Improve Vital Emergency Services Act.

As its name implies, the bill addresses the need for more broadcast spectrum for use during crises, such as 9/11, which McCain believes would have been less deadly if that spectrum had been available to emergency personnel. It also calls for the sale of certain segments of the spectrum to wireless broadband providers. The proceeds from this sale, which could reach as much as $30 billion by some estimates, would be used to close the widening Federal budget deficit as well as provide a subsidy for the poor to acquire a digital-to-analog converter box so their analog TVs don't go dark after the cutoff date.

Among the other provisions of S.1237 is a "must-carry" rule, which the cable industry opposes. The bill authorizes cable providers to convert local DTV signals to analog so consumers with analog TVs can continue to view their local stations. But if they elect to convert one must-carry station, they must convert all other must-carry stations in the same market.

The bill also prescribes public education regarding the transition and warning labels to be placed on analog TVs that inform consumers that the sets will not function without a converter after January 1, 2009.

McCain had tried to introduce a similar bill last September when he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, but it was rejected by his fellow Republicans. McCain also blamed the defeat on NAB. "Our efforts were thwarted by the powerful National Association of Broadcasters," he said. "This year, I hope we can all work together to pass a bill that ensures the country is not only better prepared in case of another attack, but also protects the vital communications outlet of broadcast television." His previous bill provided $1 billion for converter subsidies, which has been reduced to $463 million in the current version, which is enough to cover 9.2 million low-income households (as defined by the Government Accounting Office) at $50 per converter.

The SAVE LIVES Act of 2005 trumps a similar bill being worked on by current Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK), and another version is being developed by House Energy and Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX). Barton's legislation includes no provision for converter subsidies.