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Putting Airwaves on the Block? : Clinton Considers Selling Radio Frequencies to Raise Funds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The airwaves are worth at least $4.1 billion, the Clinton Administration figures.

That’s the amount the President believes can be raised during the next four years by selling off the nation’s airwaves to broadcasters, satellite operators and other private users of the radio spectrum.

The auction approach was proposed by Leon E. Panetta, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and other Administration officials as a way to cut the ballooning federal budget deficit.

Until the early 1980s, the Federal Communications Commission allocated the airwaves through administrative hearings that evaluated competing applicants. Then Congress, responding to criticism that the process was too long and costly, permitted the FCC to use a lottery to assign a portion of them.

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The FCC now uses both methods for allocating licenses and charges only a nominal application fee for use of the airwaves.

About 30 different kinds of radio services--from cellular phones to ham radios--now operate on the usable part of the radio frequency band.

The money raised by any auction would depend on what rights the government was actually selling. Though Administration officials did not say what they were contemplating, an outright sale--as opposed to a lease--of the radio bands would likely face opposition, public interest groups say.

Another potential problem is that many non-commercial users--such as police and other public service agencies--might not be able to compete financially with commercial interests in the auction process.


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