Video plea for deadline plugged into 'Dear Colleague'

“Dear Colleague” letters have come a long way in the Internet era.

One recent letter sent via e-mail by the House Energy and Commerce Committee features a video message from Houston Chief of Police Harold Hurt. In it, Hurt tells members of Congress that emergency responders urgently need to clear a broadcast spectrum at the top of the television dial to improve their radio communications during a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Hurt’s appeal is just one more salvo in the decade-long fight between Congress and the broadcast industry about switching from analog to digital television signals. Lawmakers are expected to settle on a firm deadline for this transition by the end of the year. Once the deadline is set, Congress must decide what to do with the freed airspace.

Part of that frequency will be set aside for public safety officials. Wireless phone companies are expected to bid on the remaining frequencies in an auction that could net the federal government anywhere from $10 billion to $30 billion. That money is expected to offset the deficit.

With a deadline pending, Energy and Commerce staffers attached the Hurt video to differentiate their “Dear Colleague” letter from the flood of mail that overwhelms Capitol Hill offices when Congress is in session.

“It’s a very effective technique to break out from the usual pile of paperwork,” said Terry Holt, a communications strategist for Quinn Gillespie & Associates, whose firm lobbies on behalf of Qualcomm, SBC Communications and Verizon Wireless. “It’s one of the ways to break through the din of static on Capitol Hill.”

Calling it a “perfect marriage of tactic and technology,” Holt also said the medium supplements the message in selling this transition to lawmakers.

Congress has been coaxing the broadcast industry to make this transition since the mid-1990s because digital television offers improved picture and sound quality while freeing up broadcast spectrum for emergency responders.

The transition requires broadcasters and consumers alike to upgrade their equipment, a move both groups have been reluctant to make. Cable subscribers are unaffected by the transition.

To speed the conversion, Congress inserted a provision in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 requiring all broadcasters to switch from analog signals to digital signals by the end of 2006. Broadcasters have been freed from that initial mandate because not enough American households have made the change.

Lawmakers are now trying to set a firm deadline to free up select broadcast channels for public-safety officials. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act stated that lawmakers must set this deadline by the end of the first session of the 109th Congress so that first responders could incorporate the changes into their emergency planning.

Public-safety officials in the Gulf Coast had difficulty communicating with one another during Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. In addition, the Sept. 11 commission, after its review of the World Trade Center attack, said that emergency responders need the additional channels.

Setting this deadline is expected to expedite the entire transition process.

Dell, Intel, Microsoft and other members of the High-Tech DTV Coalition sent members of the House and Senate Commerce committees a letter last week urging them to free up this broadcast spectrum to benefit poor and rural viewers who do not subscribe to cable or satellite television.

In February, the National Association of Broadcasters estimated that 73 million of the 280.5 million analog television sets in this country rely on over-the-air broadcasting.

The Senate Commerce Committee is expected to mark up a bill setting a hard deadline for that transition some time this week, with the House Energy and Commerce panel taking it up soon afterward.