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Katrina Gives Urgency to TV Transition

Last Friday, roughly 15 first responders came to Capitol Hill. Their visit, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was designed to make an urgent call for a speedy transition from analog to digital television.

Television policy might seem like an odd rallying cry for fire and police officials. But there’s a good reason for their interest: Once that transition takes place, first responders such as fire, rescue and police officers stand to benefit from a windfall of new frequencies that they can use to communicate with each other when handling emergencies. (The rest of the spectrum will be auctioned off, netting an estimated $10 billion for the government’s coffers.)

What the group didn’t plan on was that yet another tragedy, Hurricane Katrina, would occur in the interim — if anything, making their case stronger than ever. But the hurricane also has set their cause back, at least temporarily, as Congress’ legislative course has been thrown into disarray.

Before Katrina, digital TV was supposed to move on a budget reconciliation package — by Congressional standards, a seemingly sure bet. But now that measure has been delayed. One GOP lobbyist put it this way: “It’s delayed somewhere between a few weeks and never.”

Alan Caldwell, a retired former fire chief in Fairfax County, Va., now serves as senior adviser of government relations for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He took part in Friday’s meetings with Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) as well as get-togethers with such Members as Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.).

“Right now, so much is in flux, I would hate to be a betting man on something like this,” Caldwell said. “But what has changed ever so slightly is the absolute critical need. There are more needs for communication. Police chiefs and fire chiefs don’t make any money off the spectrum. We just need it to do a better job for the people we’re sworn to protect.”

Burson Taylor, a spokeswoman for Blunt, said the first responders at the Friday meeting were “advocating for a hard deadline, and it was a good conversation. [Blunt] believes it’s imperative to get the spectrum to the first responders just as soon as possible.”

Taylor added that while reconciliation is on hold, there is no indication that the DTV measure won’t be included when it moves. “Even with the delay,” she said, “everything is still lined up for consideration.”

Veronique Pluviose-Fenton, principal legislative counsel for the National League of Cities, said her association has joined with first-responder groups to urge Congress to free up spectrum ever since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

During the Katrina aftermath, Pluviose-Fenton said, emergency workers were down to one channel. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) “himself witnessed it,” she said. “People were using runners where a doctor says something and a young person runs it across to the other part of the airport to a nurse. Post 9/11, that is an embarrassment.”

The independent commission that studied the 9/11 attacks put first-responder communications on its list of priorities.

Pluviose-Fenton added that as soon as a date is certain, local governments can begin investing their homeland security funds in new communications. “If we can talk, we can save lives,” she said.

Bill Anaya, the senior director of legislative affairs for the electronics and communications giant Motorola, said he expects reconciliation to be delayed until next month. His company cares about the issue because it does business with first responders and because it manufactures boxes that can convert a digital signal for reception on an analog TV.

“That’s all we know right now. No decisions have been made,” Anaya said. “It’s unclear whether they will go forward with reconciliation or not.”

But, he added, “there is growing momentum that this public-safety spectrum piece must be taken care of. Do they get to use the vehicle of budget reconciliation or do they become part of a Katrina relief piece? That’s the razor it’s sitting on.”

Anaya added: “I think if reconciliation happens, this is in it — it’s just a question of whether reconciliation happens at all.”

Wherever the DTV language might end up, the revenue stemming from the auction could be in high demand. “It brings with it $10 billion in a wheelbarrow. There are a lot of places where that kind of resource can be quite beneficial,” he said.

The call for a “hard” date for the DTV transition has gained enough legislative traction that some proponents have indicated it could even go as a standalone measure.

Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said his group has abandoned its opposition to a hard date for the transition to digital.

“We accept the fact that Congress is going to set a hard date. We’re not going to stand in the way or fight that,” he said.

But what the broadcasters want is for cable carriers to carry all the channels that broadcasters send out over their digital stream, some of which offer 24-hour local weather programming. Wharton said NAB argues that such “multicasting” should be included in whatever final legislative package carries the DTV measure.

“We would make the case that broadcasters provide a critical role in times of crisis,” Wharton said. “Countless lives are saved every year by emergency weather warnings. But that is not meant to diminish the efforts of public safety providers.”

Pluviose-Fenton, like her colleagues, said no matter the vehicle, the DTV measure needs to pass.

“We want it to go on a legislation that is moving,” she said. “We have technology that shouldn’t force people to make a choice between television and public safety. Now is the time for Members to say what happened in Katrina matters, what happened on 9/11 matters. How many lessons learned do we have to go through?”