Talk about tunnel vision.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, announced last week that the Senate Commerce Committee was putting on hold any action on DTV (digital television) legislation.
His reasoning? "We're not going to get involved in any kind of legislation that is not related to this disaster until we can figure out that we have enough in place to recover from it," Stevens told reporters in a hallway interview."
But the DTV bills in his committee are not merely related to Katrina -- they are central to recovery from it.
While DTV has been sold generally to the public as helping to deliver better picture quality -- including lifelike high definition pictures -- the transition is hardly so frivolous. It is about spectrum -- very rich spectrum that can penetrate buildings and travel long distances. It is about making use of spectrum that television broadcasters now sit on with their analog signals and opening it up through computer digitization to provide not only better pictures but more wireless telephone and data services and vital emergency service communications.
How does that relate Katrina? For more than a week now, one of the great problems faced by emergency personnel down in the Delta has been communication.
AP Business Writer Bruce Meyerson pointed out how:
"Police in New Orleans, their main communications system knocked out, have
been taking turns talking on a single radio channel with their walkie talkies.
The Mississippi National Guard even resorted to ancient battlefield tactics, sending
runners back and forth among commanders with information."
In one instance, as related by Broadcasting & Cable, a
"policeman, facing a fire at the gateway of the French Quarter, asked CNN
to pass along to his colleagues, who he could not communicate with, that
the fire had broken out and potentially threatened the quarter."
Meanwhile, wireline and wireless services for millions of people remain out of service and are likely to remain so for weeks if not months because of as much as a billion dollars in damage to Bell South's telephone service. Wireless services have been coming back quicker, but interconnections between wireless and wireline services means that service will remain spotty at best.
All of these were part of a "total breakdown of communications systems, an echo of the problems that faced New York officials dealing with the 2001 terrorist attacks and a system the government has been trying to fix for four years," Wall Street Journal reporters Robert Block, Amy Schatz, Gary Fields and Christoper (sic) Cooper, wrote in "Behind Poor Katrina Response, A Long Chain of Weak Links."
And that is what makes the transition from old analog television service to digital service so important. The spectrum that is released to new uses by the DTV legislation can help make emergency service communications better and more secure, not only in that region but throughout the country. It can help wireless companies reconfigure their networks so they are more robust in the future. It can even help the government pay for the clean up with the sale of spectrum.
But now, the transition having slowed to a crawl, Stevens wants to put it again on hold.
It is eight years and counting since Congress passed legislation beginning the transition. That legislation actually gave television networks additional spectrum to provide high definition television pictures or to use for other digital television services. In return, they were to prepare for the digital future. Cable companies were to digitize their systems as well, an economic win-win for them as it would allow them to get into telephone service as well. And electronics manufacturers and set-makers were encouraged to make new sets digitally compatible.
A tentative date of Dec. 31, 2006, was set to complete the project, with the Federal Communications Commission to auction off the spectrum ahead of time, with federal proceeds expected to reach $10 billion or more.
But the auctions failed. There were no buyers. Why? Because the tentative date kept getting pushed back. A loophole requiring 85% of TV sets to be digitally ready for the transition to occur hasn't been met, and is unlikely to be any time soon. And nobody wants to own spectrum they can't use with some squatters legally sitting on it.
And why was the date pushed back? Because broadcasters and politicians feared a backlash from forcing those people with the analog sets and not hooked up to cable or satellite systems that deliver digitally now to spend fifty bucks for digital boxes that would convert their sets to receive digital signals.
Meanwhile, while spectrum given to broadcasters for the digital transition provided people outside the Twin Towers when terrorists struck on 9-11 in 2001 a perfect picture of the collapse of the first tower, emergency responders inside of the second tower didn't have a clue about it because their radio frequencies didn't penetrate the walls.
As the chairman of the 9-11 Commission, Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, wrote on release of their report in 2004:
"On 9/11, the failure of communications systems led to the unnecessary
loss of many lives, especially those of first responders. Four years later, America's
police, firefighters and EMTs are still waiting for reliable radio spectrum to
ensure that they can communicate during any future attack or disaster.
Broadcasters continue to occupy valuable spectrum they were loaned nearly
a decade ago to facilitate the transition to digital television. With the lives of
America's first responders on the line, Congress should fix a firm deadline for
the return of that spectrum, and its reallocation, for public safety purposes"
John McCain, the former chairman of the Commerce Committee, got their message, introducing legislation that would set a hard date of Jan. 1, 2009, for the final transition to digital. But it didn't get anywhere last year, thanks, he believes, to broadcasters continued objection to it.
In June, he reintroduced that legislation, saying: "Now is the time for congressional action, before another national emergency or crisis takes place. Access to this specific spectrum is essential to our nation's safety and welfare, as emergency communications sent over these frequencies are able to penetrate walls and travel great distances."
That action seemed to get Congress moving on its own legislation. But then Katrina struck, with all its communication failures, and Congress is using that as an excuse by Stevens not to act, though House Energy and Commerce Committee under Rep. Joe Barton seems ready to move ahead.
Congress needs to focus not only on cleaning up after Katrina, but in preparing for future disasters. It needs to complete the digital transition so emergency responders don't have to rely on runners, hand-signals and broadcasters to deliver emergency messages.
How many disasters and deaths will it take for Congress to get that picture?
To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.