Aug. 2, 2015 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Spectrum Auctions

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A bill co-sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller is among those focused on the use of airwaves in the wake of natural disasters.

When a 5.8-magnitude earthquake rattled greater Washington, D.C., Tuesday both broadcast and wireless industry advocates seized on the shakeup as a lobbying and public relations opportunity.

“Policymakers debating spectrum policy ought to take note that the one reliable communications service during today’s earthquake was the original wireless technology — free and local broadcasting,” declared a statement released Tuesday by Dennis Wharton, National Association of Broadcasters executive vice president of communications.

Over at CTIA, organization president and former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) blogged that the earthquake proved exactly the opposite: While TV and radio played a role, “most Americans used their mobile devices to find out if their family and friends were safe. Yesterday’s earthquake underscored the vital need for our industry to get more spectrum.”

It was just the latest tit-for-tat in an increasingly heated spectrum lobbying battle that’s pitting broadcasters against wireless service providers, and that will come to a head on Capitol Hill this fall.

At issue is who gets access to the valuable spectrum, or airwaves, that keep TV stations on the air and that wireless providers covet to feed the nation’s voracious appetite for cellphones, tablets and other mobile devices.

Several factors are fueling the spectrum fight. The Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction must come up with a $1.5 trillion deficit reduction plan by Nov. 23, and some see the airwaves as a lucrative source of revenue. By some estimates, spectrum auctions proposed by the Federal Communications Commission could generate anywhere from $15 billion to more than $30 billion.

The upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks also has moved the spectrum dispute front and center. Several bills, including one introduced by Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), would combine auctions with a plan to allocate 10 megahertz of spectrum, known as the “D-block,” to public safety. The recent earthquake and Hurricane Irene have also put the spotlight on safety and communications concerns during disasters.

Broadcasters are taking the spectrum debate very seriously and have responded aggressively. The NAB swung into action earlier this summer, launching a new advocacy and education website dubbed “The Future of TV.” Bob Okun, the former head of NBC Universal’s Washington office, who this year launched his own firm called the O Team, registered to lobby for the NAB in July.

The NAB also created an ad warning that Congressional action could force millions of viewers to “lose access to free local news” and that “others could lose their HD.” The association made the spot available to some 14,000 radio and TV stations for free (though not all of them ran it) and generated some 125,000 phone calls and emails to Capitol Hill, said Wharton.

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