BANKING ON AIRWAVES

Budget-balancers turn to spectrum for $14.8 billion

WASHINGTON — Beltway budgeteers threw broadcasters a curveball Monday with a last-minute revision of spectrum auction estimates, which play a central role in the effort to balance the federal budget.

On Friday, federal budget balancers said they only intended to raise $5.4 billion from the eventual sale of channels broadcasters are currently using, but now it looks as if budget-balancers are looking to the airwave auction for as much as $14.8 billion.

After reaching a general agreement on a balanced federal budget Friday, last-minute tinkering left the congressional bean-counters looking for more revenue to cover a multibillion-dollar shortfall.

As usual, both Congress and the White House turned to the spectrum auctions to bridge the gap.

Lobbyosts puzzled

The change left broadcast and network lobbyists scratching their heads. “We are not commenting until we see something official,” said National Assn. of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton.

Under the current plan, the government will hold a spectrum auction in 2002 for spectrum that broadcasters will be allowed to use until 2006. After 2006, broadcasters will have to give their current channels back to the government and rely only on their digital channel to reach their audience. Of course, that also means that 100 million TV homes will have to invest in digital TV before the 2006 digital deadline.

The broadcast spectrum is only one chunk of spectrum the budgeteers plan to sell in order to balance the budget. A combination of cellular, broadcast and satellite airwaves should raise somewhere between $25 billion and $36 billion in auction revenue.

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