Congress, Industry Mull Spectrum Reform

Congress may reform use of the radio spectrum in the next year -- if industry permits it

P> Congress may reform the telecommunications industry again next year by revamping management of the electromagnetic spectrum.

"There is a lot of congressional interest.... You'll see that evolve to a possible bill in 1997," predicted Richard Wiley, a partner with the Washington-based law firm of Wiley, Rein & Fielding. Wiley, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, now represents the television broadcast industry.

"This is a debate just getting started.... We're still in the process of evaluating our options," said Jot Carpenter, vice president for government relations at the Washington-based Telecommunications Industry Association, a trade association for the manufacturers of communications gear.

The main force for change is Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. In March, Pressler called for a bill that would hand over 25 percent of the government-used spectrum to industry, give the FCC greater authority to manage the spectrum, promote industry cooperation on spectrum management and allow broadcasters, phone companies, radio stations and other companies to use their portions of the spectrum for multiple purposes.

For example, a local police force could rent part of its spectrum to a commercial communications company, allowing the police to buy computerized radios, said Pressler.

But industry executives are split on whether a reform would be a good idea.

Companies that are not paying for the spectrum that they use, such as the television broadcasters, oppose rules that would force them to pay for use of the spectrum. And communications companies that have recently paid billions in fees to use some of the spectrum, such as many cellular or paging companies, don't want to see more of the spectrum rented out to rivals.

Thus, the television broadcasters have launched an expensive lobbying campaign to derail a proposal by Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., that would force the television companies to pay for the spectrum they want for digital TV channels and other purposes, such as data broadcasting.

The TV companies "may be able to slow-roll this thing for the rest of the [1996] Congress.... They've got some muscle to bring to this fight," said Carpenter.

But companies eyeing new markets or developing new communications technology, such as digital cellular phones, often need space on the spectrum to elbow their way into the communications market. Datacast Partners, Reston, Va., is developing technology that would allow individual television stations to broadcast data to personal computers, effectively creating an over-the-air Internet.

TIA's Carpenter said he welcomes a spectrum reform bill because "we will sell more equipment as more spectrum is made available."

Members of Congress, such as Dole and House budget chief John Kasich, R-Ohio, say spectrum sales can raise new revenues to cut the annual budget deficit. Advocates of spectrum auctions say they could raise up to $70 billion from the TV broadcasters.

Since limited spectrum sales were approved in 1993, the FCC has raised almost $20 billion from sales of newly opened portions of the spectrum to start-up cellular and paging companies.

Unlicensed spectrum users would not pay for spectrum use, and could establish rules among themselves to resolve electromagnetic interference problems.

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