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Broadcasters seek conditions on spectrum auction

July 21st, 2010


July 20 (Reuters) – U.S. broadcasters told the Obama administration they might sign on to the government’s voluntary program to reallocate their highly-prized airwaves to wireless companies, as long as certain conditions are met.

The National Association of Broadcasters sent a letter to the White House on Monday to lay down conditions to protect broadcasters, in a sign that progress is being made on a plan to refocus spectrum use.

Broadcasters, fearing the program could come with harsher regulations, sought assurances that the government would not limit their signal strength or slap them with more fees.

The Obama administration and the Federal Communications Commission have urged broadcasters to voluntarily give up a swath of airwaves in exchange for proceeds from auctions.

The program is aimed at helping wireless companies deal with a looming spectrum crunch as more consumers turn to mobile devices to surf the Web.

The spectrum reallocation plan is part of the FCC’s larger National Broadband Plan, which seeks to give more Americans access to high-speed Internet and wireless services.

AT&T Inc (T.N), Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile, the U.S. unit of Deutsche Telekom AG (DTEGn.DE) are among wireless companies seeking more spectrum. Verizon Wireless is a venture between Verizon Communications Inc (VZ.N) and Vodafone Group Plc (VOD.L).

NAB represents 7,500 local radio and TV stations including the big networks CBS Corp (CBS.N), Walt Disney Co’s (DIS.N) ABC, News Corp’s (NWSA.O) Fox, and NBC, which is majority-owned by General Electric Co (GE.N).

“Our goal is simple: to work collaboratively on a two-track strategy that accomplishes the administration’s goals without compromising America’s robust and reliable digital television service that remains free, local and ubiquitous,” NAB President Gordon Smith wrote in a letter to National Economic Council Director Larry Summers.

In the letter Smith said he wants to ensure that broadcasters not interested in the voluntary program will not be subject to signal strength limitations or onerous new taxes for using current spectrum.

He added that broadcasters should also have the ability to provide viewers with mobile digital television programming.

The NAB letter comes as two senators introduced legislation that would give the FCC and the Commerce Department the authority to auction off spectrum and give some of the proceeds back to the license holders.

The FCC needs Congress to give it new authority before it can move forward with this type of auction.

In a move to prod broadcasters to relinquish some spectrum, the bill also includes a provision that would allow the FCC to assess an annual fee for spectrum holders.

The FCC regulates commercial spectrum and the Commerce Department oversees spectrum used by government agencies. Both are examining how spectrum is being utilized.

“We can and should know how our spectrum is being used and do more to encourage more efficient and productive use,” said Democratic Senator John Kerry, who along with Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, offered a spectrum reform bill.

There is no companion legislation in the House of Representatives. (Reporting by John Poirier; Editing by Richard Chang)

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