This vote was on a motion to maintain the scheduled date for converting to all-digital television for the portion of the broadcast spectrum designated for use by public safety officials. The conversion had been recommended by the September 11 Commission. The motion was made during House consideration of legislation, which would delay the date of conversion of all digital television broadcasting from February 17, 2009 to June 15, 2009. Rep. Barton (R-TX) had moved to send the bill back to the Commerce Committee with instructions to maintain the original conversion date for the first responder spectrum.
Rep. Boucher (D-VA), the chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, was leading the effort to delay the conversion date. He cited a very recent Nielsen study that found more than six million households still had only analog television reception and were “totally unprepared for the transition.” Boucher argued that if millions of households lost television service, it would be a greater threat to public safety than delaying the use of the spectrum by first responders. He also pointed to the support the delay has received from major organizations of first responders, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the Association of Public Safety Communication Officers. Boucher further pointed to support for the delay from the major networks, and from AT&T and Verizon, which had spent billions purchasing portions of the broadcasting spectrum to be freed up by the switch to all-digital.
Rep. Barton (R-TX) first argued generally against the delay because Americans had known the conversion date for more than two years, and said that any delay of a designated date is a bad idea for the federal government to enact. Barton also disagreed with the estimate of six million unprepared households, claiming the figure was really only 800,000. He further claimed that the majority of those who had not converted were already on the waiting list to be converted. Barton and other Republicans also argued that pushing back the date would put a significant financial burden on individual television stations.
In an effort to prevent the bill as written from being voted on, or alternatively to limit its impact, Barton made a procedural motion to have it sent back to the Commerce Committee with certain instructions from the House. These instructions were that the Committee should revise the bill to exclude from the conversion date extension those stations that broadcast on, or adjacent to, the portion of the spectrum designated for use by public safety officials. Boucher argued against this motion on the ground that very few public safety agencies would even be prepared by the original February 17 date to begin using the portion of the spectrum designated for them.
The vote on the motion to send the bill back to the Commerce Committee with the noted instructions failed on a vote of 180 ayes to 242 nays. One hundred and sixty-five Republicans and fifteen Democrats voted “aye”. Two hundred and thirty-six Democrats and six Republicans voted “nay”. As a result, the House moved to a vote on the passage of the legislation to delay the date for converting the entire broadcast spectrum to all-digital television.