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Spectrum Shell Game Continues

Potential auction could be budget deficit boon

Sen. Rockefeller, Rep. Walden Rockefeller : Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Walden: Bill Clark/Roll Call via Getty Images

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For congressional leaders looking to cut $4 trillion from the budget deficit, the $25 billion to $30 billion that could be raised from an auction of broadcast spectrum is like manna from heaven. But the big question for broadcasters and legislators is what sort of auction will result.

The fact that a spectrum auction could be lumped in with deficit-reducing measures is something of a double-edged sword for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the sponsor of one of the auction bills currently under consideration. On the one hand, the maneuver would be the easiest way for him to get the bill done by the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a deadline he wants to meet because his bill would hand over a portion of the spectrum to public safety instead of selling it. But that means essentially giving away $3 billion, something that would be tough in this economic climate.

Broadcasters are most concerned that the deficit deal makers might go with a straight FCC auction authorization. Without certain protections, broadcasters could be left with a degraded signal and an added expense of $1.5 million to $2 million to cover a move to a new frequency. While the National Association of Broadcasters is “cautiously optimistic” that it will get those protections, network affiliate groups are taking no chances, detailing their concerns in a letter sent late last week to the House membership.

Update: There's new activity on the House side, and it could lead to the spectrum debate being resolved this week, or at least getting close to a resolution by Friday, when the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology holds its fifth hearing on the topic. Ahead of the hearing, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and Rep. Gene Green, D-Tex., dropped a companion bill to S911, the bill championed by Rockefeller. While this new bill is similar to Rockefeller's in that it sets aside a block of spectrum for public safety, it has a couple of noticeable differences. It limits the FCC's authority to one auction and strengthens protections for broadcasters, whom Dingell has always championed. Meanwhile, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who chairs the subcommittee holding the hearing, is working hard behind the scenes with Democrats to craft a bipartisan bill.