Recently, I outlined my goals for keeping Texas and the United States connected through our national highway system and commercial and passenger air transportation. As the Senior Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, I am also focused on another kind of connectivity: telecommunications. Over the past several decades, America has seen a rapid advancement in communication technologies. While most citizens enjoy its benefits, we have not kept pace with other nations and the advantages of connectivity have not reached all our citizens. We must find ways to leverage new innovations to expand their reach and improve the lives of all Americans.
Perhaps the most pressing priority facing us this year is the Digital Television (DTV) Transition, during which broadcasters nationwide will switch from an analog format to digital broadcasting. Congress mandated the transition to digital broadcasting in 2006 to free up broadcast spectrum for important public safety activities that will increase the nation's ability to respond to terrorist attacks and national disasters.
For more than a year, the federal government and the broadcasting industry have worked to inform the public about the transition and to help consumers prepare. The transition date had previously been scheduled for February 17. However, in January, a senior official in the Obama administration called for postponement of the transition, citing dwindling funds for the federal Coupon Program, which helps consumers buy converter boxes at a discounted rate.
Initially, I had serious concerns about shifting the digital television transition without a sound plan to inform consumers and resolve the converter box coupon shortage. But Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller has worked with me to address many of my reservations with the initial proposals to move the date. Once legislation is enacted to reschedule the transition, the changes I worked to secure will help consumers whose coupons have expired to apply for new coupons. Other modifications to early delay proposals will allow prepared TV stations to move forward without the added costs of operating multiple broadcast facilities. Moreover, I have received assurances that there will be no further postponement, and that we will bring the transition to a conclusion this year. Significant challenges remain, however, and I will continue working with my colleagues in Congress to ensure a smooth changeover to digital television for all Americans.
Another telecommunications issue that begs the Senate's thoughtful consideration is access to the high-speed communication service known as broadband. Most in Congress agree that the widespread availability of high-speed Internet will create jobs. Moreover, in heavily rural states, like Texas, broadband deployment will expand educational opportunities through distance learning and improve the delivery of medical services and information through telehealth programs.
Where lawmakers tend to disagree, however, is on how to deploy broadband. Some in Congress would like high-speed Internet access in the U.S. to match that of urban centers like Hong Kong and are ready to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to that end. There are two problems with that approach. First, the U.S. is geographically and demographically diverse - what makes sense for New York City might not work in the Texas Panhandle. Second, it isn't cost-efficient. Even if the federal government builds a nationwide fiber-optic network, there is no guarantee that all consumers would subscribe to it. Instead, I am hopeful we will adopt incentives for investment by individuals and companies through changes in tax treatment, enhanced bonding authorities for broadband construction and targeted grant programs. This will allow the marketplace to determine what technology is appropriate for a community and how best to deploy it. In the meantime, broadband mapping efforts, which collect data on internet use, will help us better target our efforts.
Finally, just as Congress must support efforts to upgrade and expand telecommunications technology where we need it, we must limit it where it can do harm. In January, Rep. Kevin Brady and I introduced a bill to prevent prison inmates from using smuggled cellular phones, which are often used to orchestrate criminal enterprises and harass or threaten public officials from behind bars. In Texas, death row inmate Richard Tabler used a smuggled cell phone to intimidate a state senator. Current law prevents any kind of interference with wireless services.
Our legislation provides a reasonable process for approval and use of jamming technology without compromising public access to 911 and emergency services or infringing on legitimate users' rights.
This year in the Senate Commerce Committee, I will work to advance sound, practicable policies that will keep Americans connected and allow our nation to keep up in the fast-moving digital age.
Kay Bailey Hutchison is a U.S. Senator for the state of Texas. Readers may contact her via telephone at (210) 340-2885.