Fight Over TV Waves Spans the Spectrum

Posted April 8, 2005 at 6:02pm

Much of what lobbyists and politicos scuffle about behind the scenes can seem of little consequence to many Americans. But one issue that Congress is tackling right now deals with two matters constituents take seriously: television and homeland security.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is examining a possible deadline for broadcast stations to stop sending out their signals in analog format and fully converting to the digital age. Some of the airwaves, also known as “spectrum,” would then be passed to emergency responders such as police and firefighters, with the rest going on the auction block.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of Energy and Commerce, which has jurisdiction over telecommunications, said that setting a firm date for the conversion is a must.

“It’s a priority because it would help the country economically,” he said in an interview. Auctioning off the majority of the spectrum would “bring some money to the treasury and help the budget deficit and create an impetus to create more jobs in the high-tech sector.”

For legislators eyeing an update to the 1996 Telecom Act, setting policy for the conversion to digital TV is an integral part of the issue, Barton and lobbyists working on the legislation say. But Barton said he wants to move a digital TV bill separately. “The telecom bill probably won’t be done until summer, and I’d like to move this” this month, he said.

Several groups and businesses have rushed into the lobbying debate, but one company, Motorola, has multiple interests in the issue and has taken a leading role. The company’s main opponent: local television stations, represented by the National Association of Broadcasters. The stations fear losing both viewers and advertising revenue if they stop broadcasting in the traditional format by next year.

“Just like anything in lobbying, coalition-building is key,” said Greg Rohde, president of the technology lobbying firm e-Copernicus, which counts Motorola as a client. “Taking on the broadcasters that don’t want to be moved — this is going to be a significant battle.”

Motorola has three key reasons for being involved. First, the company is a supplier of the walkie-talkies and other communications tools used by emergency and police personnel. If more spectrum opens up, those agencies likely will place orders with Motorola and other companies for new high-tech gadgets.

Second, Motorola produces converter boxes that customers can hook up to a regular TV to make it ready for a digital signal.

And third, the company markets phones and other devices to wireless providers, which could experience a surge in business if more spectrum becomes available.

But Motorola’s main message has been to tout the public safety benefit.

“It would be a major leapfrog from what we have today — from antique analog to dynamic digital applications for police and fire,” said Bill Anaya, the senior director of legislative affairs for Motorola who runs Congressional strategy for the company. “Every year we wait is another year too late. Is that really the level of power we want law enforcement to have” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks?

Harlin McEwen, a retired police chief from Ithaca, N.Y., represents four law enforcement associations including the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriffs’ Association. His groups are part of a coalition that also includes the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International.

For now, McEwen said, Motorola is the primary corporation backing their efforts. “Motorola has stepped forward to support us, and the associations have voted to work with them,” he said. “If we don’t get the spectrum, they can’t sell us equipment.”

McEwen said his colleagues need the additional airwaves because “the channels are overloaded, and that puts people in jeopardy … A lot of these television stations have been dragging their feet.”

But Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said his group has spent the past few years getting word out to customers that television’s digital age is coming. He added that about 90 percent of all broadcasters air both analog and digital, so NAB is hardly dragging its feet; it’s just waiting for consumers to catch up.

“We think the potential for consumer revolt is enormous,” said Wharton, who added that 73 million televisions in the United States receive a picture from the free airwaves. About 45 million of those sets are in homes that have no other way of receiving TV. The other 28 million sets are in homes where at least one television is hooked up to cable or satellite.

“It’s about disenfranchising millions and millions of people from local television signals,” Wharton said. “Our only source of revenue is from the number of eyeballs we can potentially deliver and the advertising that is sold.”

NAB’s chief lobbyist, John Orlando, and President Eddie Fritts, who is leaving that job later this year, are taking the lead for NAB. None of the major networks is part of NAB, so each is working the issue independently.

The broadcasters have a formidable adversary in Barton. “They have a commodity right now — the spectrum has value — and they don’t want to give it up,” Barton said. He added that he wants to work with the broadcasters, whom he said “politically have been some of my best supporters” over the years.

Spectrum, like land, is a limited resource, so any that can be freed up is going to be valuable. But that’s even more so for the particular spectrum at issue.

“This is like beachfront-property spectrum,” said Rohde, who worked on the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996 as an aide to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). “It is in the lower part of the band, and when you get lower you get a better signal.”

Diane Cornell, vice president of regulatory policy at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, said her group’s members need the additional spectrum for products that are already on the market as well as new applications such as video over cellphones. As a result, telecom companies will pay top dollar for use of the spectrum, which will in turn benefit the federal bottom line.

Barton said he supports a subsidy program under which some of the revenue collected from the auction would go to help Americans pay for their converter boxes. That’s one point the broadcasters and Motorola agree on. It’s the timing that is at the crux of the issue.

The Consumer Electronic Retailers Coalition — which includes converter-box retailers such as Radio Shack — is in favor of setting a firm date. But Bob Schwartz of the law firm McDermott Will and Emery, an outside counsel to the group, said that from his perspective, the lobbying hasn’t yet reached a “fever pitch.”

But don’t tell that to Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.). He said that many constituents in his rural district don’t have access to cable, and “satellite is somewhat expensive for people who are primarily interested in just watching broadcast television.”

“I could be persuaded to go along with that hard deadline, if the government is willing to provide a converter box for every set,” said Boucher, a Hill leader on telecom issues. “I simply don’t want my constituents to incur any costs as a result of this transition.”

Boucher added that his passion about this issue is not being driven by lobbying.

“I have seen the NAB take much stronger stances before. As a matter of fact, I think I’m more concerned about this than they are. I think everyone in rural America would appreciate NAB’s advocacy and would like to see them do much more,” he said.

A turning point in an otherwise stalled measure came last year at a hearing where Barton “sat down on the far left of the dais, and he said, ‘We’re going to end the D-TV transition.’ That was sort of a ‘where were you when Kennedy was shot’ sort of thing,” Anaya recalled. Insiders, he said, agree that “when the man speaks like that, you can count on his bringing about full force.”

Wharton said broadcasters know they will have to pony up the spectrum eventually, but “we’re obviously going to be working with both the House and Senate to educate Members to make sure this transition occurs with consumer acceptance.”