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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.

Thanks in part to that effort, the NAB helped fend off a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to include spectrum auctions in the recent debt limit agreement Congress approved at the beginning of the month. Reid had said those auctions would generate $15 billion.

But the fight now moves to the 12-member, bipartisan Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, which many expect to revisit spectrum auctions as a revenue source. The NAB does not oppose voluntary spectrum auctions, said Wharton, but wants to ensure that broadcasters are not forced off the air.

The auctions outlined in the FCC’s 2010 National Broadband Plan, which would reclaim 120 megahertz of spectrum from broadcasters, would force 40 percent of full-power local TV stations off their current channel assignments, according to the NAB. To conduct "incentive auctions," which would allow broadcasters to share in the proceeds, the FCC needs Congressional approval.

“Our message to Congress is: Don’t harm the broadcasters who don’t volunteer to go out of business,” Wharton said.

NAB allies include Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who in June blasted the FCC for failing to respond fully to his request for details on how incentive auctions would affect the broadcast industry. Dingell said he was “deeply disturbed” by what he called the agency’s incomplete response. Dingell has written a spectrum bill as a companion to Rockefeller’s that includes more protections for broadcasters.

Wireless advocates, including those at CTIA, AT&T and Verizon, are shopping a different message to Capitol Hill: Their industry can help reduce the deficit, generate jobs and improve public safety. CTIA has run its own inside-the-Beltway ads with the message: “NAB is making dire claims that a voluntary spectrum auction will end local television. That’s not so.”

“Our members want to purchase this spectrum from the U.S. Treasury for billions of dollars,” CTIA spokeswoman Amy Storey said.

Two of the 12 deficit committee members have telecommunications policy expertise, furthering speculation that the panel will take up the spectrum debate: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.). A spectrum measure could also move as stand-alone legislation or as part of the appropriations process as the fiscal year winds down next month.

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