Taxing fight for stations

Wireless tech may be affected by lack of space

President Obama, the FCC and Capitol Hill lawmakers are sounding the alarm on a spectrum crunch, warning of a lack of available space that could imperil the advancement of wireless technology.

But their plans to free up some 500 Mhz for broadband include reallocating some space (120 Mhz) now designated for broadcasters — an idea that does not thrill stations and has triggered outright opposition to an idea to charge some TV stations fees for spectrum use. National Assn. of Broadcasters prexy Gordon Smith has taken to referring to the proposed fees by a dreaded term in D.C. these days: Taxes.

On Monday, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced what is called “spectrum reform” legislation, which calls for a system of “market-based incentives to promote efficient spectrum use.” The legislation calls for giving broadcasters a share of the proceeds in an auction of the spectrum that they agree to relinquish. But it also includes a provision allowing the FCC to collect spectrum fees, a disincentive for broadcasters to hold on to space that they may not need.

The criticism from broadcasters stands to set up a Capitol Hill battle over spectrum as if it were a precious commodity. And it is emerging as one of the most contentious parts of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, a framework for dramatically advancing access to the Internet and wireless services and boosting the country’s broadband capabilities over the next decade.

The Kerry-Snowe legislation is designed to implement key parts of the Broadband Plan, which supporters say is necessary if the U.S. is to compete with other countries and spur further innovation in broadband services.

“Our nation’s airwaves are finite resources, and we need to use them as efficiently as possible,” Kerry said in a statement.

Obama added a sense of urgency to the Broadband Plan in late June, when he endorsed the proposals to free up spectrum and ordered an inventory of the current uses of space. But he did not mention the idea of spectrum fees.

In fact, according to a letter to Lawrence Summers, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, NAB’s Smith cites assurances that Summers has made to him that any reallocation of broadcast spectrum would be “truly voluntary.”

Smith wrote, “Stations that choose not to participate in a voluntary incentive auction must not be subject to onerous new spectrum taxes that would make it increasingly difficult for stations to finance local programming, operations and newsgathering efforts.”

He added that while broadcasters have “no quarrel” with the idea of incentive auctions that are voluntary, they are concerned that the goal of freeing up 120 Mhz “would create a number of serious engineering and practical difficulties.”

Among other things, Smith noted that many broadcasters are rolling out mobile digital TV services, and holding out the prospect of using the additional spectrum they are keeping for such things as on-demand programming and 3D TV. He wrote that those stations that do not participate in an auction “must not be subjected to signal strength limitations or new interfering signals that degrade their geographical reach.”

As contentious as spectrum may get, broadcasters do see benefits with the Kerry-Snowe bill, and also had words of praise. It also calls for a comprehensive spectrum inventory, which NAB exec VP Dennis Wharton called a “holistic approach to identifying all avenues for spectrum efficiency in both the public and private sectors.”

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