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Debt Deal Spares Broadcasters, But Maybe Not for Long Debt Deal Spares Broadcasters, But Maybe Not for Long

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Debt Deal Spares Broadcasters, But Maybe Not for Long


The debt-ceiling deal spares broadcasters that feared spectrum auctions, but likely not for long.(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty)

In a significant victory for broadcasters over their rivals in the tech and wireless industries, spectrum proposals were not included in what may be the final version of the debt-ceiling deal. 

Tech lobbyists and lawmakers on both the House and Senate commerce panels have been negotiating for weeks over whether airwave auctions should be folded into the debt package as a revenue raiser.


Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he was disappointed those issues were not resolved in the debt package after the House and Senate could not agree on the right way forward.

“We had hoped that a version of our legislation would have been in the deficit package this week," Rockefeller, author of a wireless bill with a special focus on public safety needs,  said in a statement. "Despite that setback, I will continue to fight to make sure that by the 10th anniversary of 9/11 we have this bill signed into law."

Spectrum auctions could raise almost $12 billion dollars, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis of a debt proposal released last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, before the spectrum measure was dropped from the deal.


Cell-service providers want Congress to authorize auctions in which TV stations can sell their airwaves and go out of business, allowing wireless companies to take over the freed-up airwaves and meet demand. Revenue would go to broadcasters and the government.

Broadcasters that remain in business may be moved to a different spot on the airwaves to make way for mobile companies, something that worries NAB. Along with spectrum relinquished by TV stations, the government may recover additional airwaves from broadcasters by asking them to share channels with other users. They can do this because the switch from analog to digital broadcasting makes transmission more precise, so each frequency needs less spectrum.

“It was a missed opportunity, but not a wasted one,” Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future, an AT&T-backed wireless group, said in a phone interview. “Lawmakers are now more aware than ever of the incredible potential of spectrum auctions.”

National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith said that his lobby is “pleased that the negotiated debt-ceiling bill, to be considered by Congress, does not threaten free and local broadcasting. NAB will continue working with lawmakers on incentive auction legislation that is truly voluntary.”


“Our goal is to ensure that TV stations choosing not to go out of business will be held harmless, and that tens of millions of Americans who enjoy local news, entertainment, sports, and lifesaving weather warnings from broadcasters will not be penalized," Smith said in a statement.

It may not be the end of the line for spectrum auctions in this Congress.

A Senate Commerce aide and telecom analysts said that spectrum proposals will likely reemerge in a package from the prospective bipartisan deficit-reduction panel created by this week’s debt agreement to recommend ways to bring down the deficit later this year.

“It seems like a no-brainer to include spectrum. It’s a way to raise revenue without raising taxes,” the aide said.

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