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Broadcast lobby takes digital fight to Congress

You would think that these days, Congress would be on a terrorism high alert, paying any price to keep the homeland secure. But there's at least one chink in Washington's antiterror resolve, as was evident in the U.S. Senate last week. It involves the broadcasting lobby and the high-stakes politics associated with the transition to digital TV.

Most people have heard about big D.C. lobbies like the ones for tobacco and guns. Compared with the broadcasters, though, they're but a few suburban moms writing letters. Multichannel News, a trade paper, says the broadcasting industry is "so potent it's considered immune from the laws of political physics."

For instance, during the 1980s and 1990s, the industry used the promise of high-definition television to get Congress to give broadcasters an extra digital channel on which to air an HD version of their old-fashioned analog signal. The spectrum was worth untold billions of dollars, but the broadcasters got it free, on the condition that they would eventually give back their existing analog channel.

Later, the broadcasters even managed to wiggle out of any requirement that they use the digital frequency for the highest-possible definition. Instead, they will be able to use it to broadcast several lower-resolution (but still digital) pictures, or even offer other services, like cellphones.

The big technology policy fight these days involves the date broadcasters will have to surrender their old frequencies _ the familiar UHF and VHF channels. For technical reasons, they are some of the most valuable pieces of spectrum around. When vacated by broadcasters, they could be put to all sorts of new and innovative uses, such as providing super-fast Internet connections.

That day of reckoning was initially set for 2006, but it's a deadline that's not expected to hold because of loopholes in the law setting it. The small but growing group of tech-savvy spectrum reformers in Congress _ Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., among them _ were beginning to despair that the public would ever get the analog channels back.

Lately, though, this group found what seemed like a trump card: terrorism. The 9/11 commission's report said one of the problems that day was rescuers were talking on different radio bands. The panel recommended that Congress assign a big chunk of spectrum that could be used to coordinate rescue work in the event of a future terrorist attack.

McCain cited the recommendation when he introduced a bill that would make broadcasters return UHF channels 52 through 69 by the end of 2008. Homeland-security uses would get some of the spectrum; the rest could be put to other uses.

All along, broadcasters have urged caution in switching off the analog channels by noting, correctly, that doing so could mean that people without cable or satellite won't be able to watch television. (Traditional TV sets can't receive digital signals, which are the only kind that will be broadcast after the switch.) While there is considerable debate about how big this group really is, McCain aimed to take care of them.

How? By subsidizing set-top boxes that will allow a traditional TV set to show digital broadcasts, though in standard definition and not HD. The bill envisions auctioning off some of the returned spectrum and using the proceeds to subsidize the converter boxes. Using numbers from the New America Foundation, a Washington policy group taking a leadership role in this fight, McCain estimated the cost of such a subsidy would be $1-billion. Most of that would be for low-income households, though even middle-class over-the-air viewers would get a break.

That amount is far less than even the most pessimistic estimate of how much money the government could take in from an auction.

It seems like an easy and obvious solution. But the broadcasting lobby liked virtually nothing about the bill, and senators couldn't muscle up the political will to pass it.

The Commerce Committee voted 13-9 against the McCain proposal, approving a vastly watered-down alternative. Only four channels would have to be returned by 2008, and even that handover could be delayed indefinitely if broadcasters could persuade the FCC that doing so would cause "consumer disruption."