Dole Calls for TV Spectrum Auctions

Sen. Bob Dole's call for TV broadcasters to pay for their use of the spectrum may delay the slow-moving telecommunications reform bill

P> Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is calling on television broadcasters to pay for the use of the TV portion of the spectrum.

The move by Dole, R-Kan., immediately added controversy to the stalled telecommunications reform bill. Broadcasters fiercely resisted any demands that they pay for their digital TV spectrum -- possibly worth up to $40 billion, according to Federal Communications Commission studies.

"At a time when we are... trying to balance the [federal] budget... it does not make any sense to give away billions of dollars to corporate interests and succumb to their intense media lobbying," said Dole, the leading GOP presidential candidate. "I do think we should resolve this spectrum issue before the bill is considered" on the Senate floor, he added.

Dole's proposal "is a serious impediment" to the reform bill, said Reed Hundt, the FCC chairman. "As far as I know, it is the only obstacle," he said.

However, supporters of the controversial telecom reform bill -- including Republican whip Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. -- expect it to weather this latest upset despite failure to pass the measure in 1994 and 1995. "There [are] forces that want this bill passed for a lot of reasons, and [Dole is] pretty unpopular for bringing it up at this point," said Cathy Cleaver, a lobbyist for the Washington-based Family Research Council. The council is trying to get the Internet-censorship measure -- now included in the reform bill -- passed into law.

Dole's proposal may win a place in the telecom bill, or may be postponed for a separate debate where the TV companies' lobbying clout would not be challenged by the telecom companies. This would make it easier for broadcasters to battle political opposition to their free use of the spectrum, said Bruce Hahn, an Arlington, Va.-based lobbyist for the Chicago-based Computing Technology Industry Association.

The proposal complements a call by President Bill Clinton for an auction of the TV broadcasters' spectrum in 2002, and matches widespread calls in Washington for a reduction in "corporate welfare" -- business subsidies such as the free use of the spectrum.

The prize at stake is 6 megahertz of the spectrum, now allocated for the emerging nationwide digital television network. The 1,500 television broadcast companies and the major TV networks may freely use this spectrum -- as well as the existing spectrum now allocated for analog TV -- until at least 2003. After that, the government may reclaim and auction off the analog TV spectrum.

But telecommunications companies already have paid several billion dollars to use other slices of the spectrum for various types of communications networks such as digital telephones. The companies fear the TV broadcasters will use their large slices of spectrum to set up new telecommunications businesses without paying for it.

Broadcast officials rushed to attack Dole's proposal. "We have a very good case to make [because] we know there will be no free over-the-air TV unless broadcasters can make the transition to digital," said Lynn McReynolds, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Association of Broadcasters. McReynolds said the broadcasters have solid support on the hill, including Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., the leading Senate Democrat in the telecom debate, and Rep. Jack Fields, R-Texas, a leading Republican player in the debate.

Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va., chairman of the commerce committee, rejected Dole's move. "This isn't a giveaway of spectrum, it is a loan" needed to help the TV industry transition from an analog TV network to a digital TV network, he told an audience of broadcast executives. Without the free loan, many of the nation's small broadcast companies would not be able to pay for the new spectrum plus the roughly $9 million per station needed to broadcast digital TV signals.

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