Dole Says Telecom Bill in Need of Reform

From Times Wire Services

Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said Wednesday that he wants changes made to telecommunications reform legislation pending in Congress before he brings it up for a vote in the Senate.

The Republican leader's objections mean the bill--which has languished in a House-Senate conference committee for months--will be delayed further. Shortly after making his comments in a speech, Dole adjourned the Senate until Jan. 22.

Specifically, Dole wants lawmakers to address a provision in the bill that would allow the Federal Communications Commission to allocate digital airwaves to broadcasters for free.

Broadcasters, who want to use the airwaves at no cost, say having to pay to use the digital spectrum could threaten the future of their industry.

In effect, the bill would give broadcasters new digital TV licenses at no cost--licenses that Dole said are valued at anywhere from $12.5 billion to $70 billion.

"While I want to work with those who put together a good telecom bill, I do think we should resolve this spectrum issue before the bill is considered," he said on the Senate floor. "It's a very difficult task. . . . Let's fix this one corporate-welfare provision before we ask members to vote on it."

Broadcasters were quick to defend their right to free use of the airwaves.

Dole's idea would put free over-the-air television in jeopardy, said Julie Hoover, a spokeswoman for Capital Cities/ABC Inc., which owns the ABC network.

Industry executives also said smaller stations cannot afford to both upgrade their facilities and buy digital TV broadcast licenses.

"If Dole is saying he wants to take a hard line on digital TV, that's a hard nut to crack," said John Mansell, an analyst with television consulting firm Paul Kagan & Associates. "A lot of broadcasters were counting on that additional frequency."

Other lawmakers have asked the FCC to auction the airwaves for high-resolution digital TV.

In a current version of the bill, the FCC would give broadcasters an additional 6 megahertz of channel capacity and allow them to use it for digital broadcast and other purposes, such as cellular phones, pagers or pay-per-view.

Broadcasters would get free use of digital airwaves over 15 years for broadcasting only. For other uses, they would be required to pay a fee roughly equal to a price they'd pay in an airwave auction.

The time frame is in line with the existing FCC plan, which would have broadcasters move into digital airwaves over 15 years, without charge, as they continue analog broadcasts on their existing channels. After that time, during which most Americans will theoretically have purchased new digital TVs or converter boxes, broadcasters would have to give back the analog airwaves.

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