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Bill to Boost Rural Access to Local TV Clears Senate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Senate approved legislation Thursday designed to encourage satellite television companies to include local channels in packages they sell in rural areas, giving tens of millions of viewers access to local programming that they cannot receive now.

The measure would establish a $1.2-billion federal loan-guarantee program to help finance purchase of the technology and equipment that satellite companies would need to provide such services in areas that cannot receive local channels by other means.

Rural customers have complained for years that they are unable to view important weather, news and public safety programming because they are out of range of broadcast stations and do not have access to cable television services.

Although Congress passed legislation last autumn paving the way for satellite TV companies to expand their operations, the carriers have said that they only intend to provide local programming in the nation’s most populous markets, largely because the effort is so costly.

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Satellite companies say that they incur outsized risks in trying to provide local programming to rural customers because the equipment they need--translators and repeaters necessary to boost TV signals sufficiently--is prohibitively expensive.

Under the new legislation, the Agriculture Department would administer a program that would underwrite as much as 80% of bank loans designed to help satellite companies finance the new equipment.

Thursday’s legislation enjoyed bipartisan support, attracting a broad array of lawmakers from rural and so-called underserved areas. The Senate passed the bill unanimously, 97 to 0.

The new legislation initially was offered as an amendment to last fall’s bill but was scrapped after Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, complained that the measure was flawed and the program was too costly.

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Gramm told the Senate wryly that rural Americans wanted the legislation “so they could get the local news, so they could get the local weather and so they could get the local football game--all of which are critical to life in America.”

The House is expected to consider its own version of the measure by early summer. The House Commerce Committee approved its version of the legislation late Wednesday. Although there are some differences between the two measures, they are expected to be resolved easily by a House-Senate conference committee.

Proponents of the legislation had argued that it would mandate appropriate government incentives to provide rural customers with local programming in areas where the private sector had been unable or unwilling to do so.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the loan-guarantee program would cost taxpayers about $265 million over the next five years, substantially less than the $360-million price tag for the version of the bill that was considered in 1999.

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In approving the measure Thursday, senators rejected a proposal by Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.) that would have established a similar loan-guarantee program to underwrite financing of costs associated with launching telecommunications satellites into space.


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