A Senate committee voted yesterday to transfer airwaves used by dozens of television stations to spectrum-starved public safety organizations but included a provision that critics say could allow broadcasters to delay the move indefinitely.

The Senate Commerce Committee vote was in response to the recent 9/11 Commission report, which warned that emergency response teams across the country need greater access to the airwaves to manage calls in times of crisis. The report specifically backed a proposal to take the spectrum from broadcasters.

The Commerce Committee approved a proposal backed by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) that would take channels 63, 64 , 68 and 69 from broadcasters on Jan. 1, 2008. There are 75 television stations around the country that would be affected by the plan, including the CBS affiliate in Detroit and the UPN affiliate in Atlanta.

But Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) was highly critical of the proposal because it included language allowing broadcasters to hold on to the spectrum if the FCC determines that taking it from stations would result in "consumer disruption."

McCain said the loosely defined "consumer disruption" was in effect "a loophole a mile wide." Broadcasters could claim that the loss of their signal would cause "consumer disruption" even though more than 85 percent of households get their TV signals via cable or satellite, he said.

McCain is pushing his own proposal, which would set a firm deadline of Dec, 31, 2008, for television stations to give up one of the two television channels they now control. In 1996, every station in the country was given a second channel to make the transition to digital TV.