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McCain pushes for earlier digital TV deadline

Sen. John McCain said Tuesday he would press for the transition to higher-quality digital television signals to be completed by the end 2006 or early 2007 instead of a proposal for April 2009.
/ Source: Reuters

Sen. John McCain said Tuesday he would press for the transition to higher-quality digital television signals to be completed by the end 2006 or early 2007 instead of a proposal for April 2009.

The Arizona Republican has been pushing broadcasters to quickly finish their shift to digital airwaves and give up their old analog airwaves, some of which would then be used to improve communications between emergency workers.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican and the ranking Democrat, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, have proposed April 7, 2009 as the date when television stations switch to airing only digital signals.

"Can we really afford to wait until 2009 before we go ahead and transfer this spectrum?" McCain said, noting the difficulties emergency personnel had communicating during Hurricane Katrina and that another storm, Wilma, was brewing.

He did not know if he had enough support for his proposal, but McCain told a forum sponsored by the New America Foundation: "I believe the transition can be made by then."

The Senate committee is set to vote on a transition date at a meeting Thursday.

The date chosen by Stevens and Inouye was selected in part to allow manufacturers the time to produce the necessary equipment, as well as to avoid disrupting the holiday selling season and popular televised sporting events such as the NCAA college basketball tournament.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that if the analog airwaves were made available around 2009, the government could auction some of them for commercial wireless services and raise about $10 billion.

"We feel that we should go with the time suggested by the CBO and that's what we've done," Stevens told reporters. "I don't know how it's going to come out. John's absolutely right, the first responders need new spectrum, but it's going to take some time to get it to them."

Current law requires television broadcasters to return their old analog airwaves when 85 percent of the country can receive the new digital signals, or by Dec. 31, 2006, whichever comes later.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which represents hundreds of local stations, has supported finishing the transition in 2009 and has noted that public safety officials have said it would take about two years to take advantage of the new airwaves.

A spokesman for the NAB declined comment on McCain's remarks.

About 21 million households only receive broadcast television signals, while most Americans subscribe to cable or satellite-delivered television. The Senate draft legislation would provide some financial aid to help households buy boxes to convert digital signals back to analog so older sets do not go dark.