They're baaaack!

New budget has spectrum lease fees, delays auctions

As demands for spectrum grow, the Bush administration is again trying to pressure broadcasters, proposing in last week's federal budget to charge them a $500 million annual lease fee if they do not return the analog spectrum to the government by 2007. It also wants to delay spectrum auctions to try to get more buck for the bang.

It was déjà vu all over again. Last year, the administration recommended broadcasters pay $200 million annually in fees starting in 2002, but that proposal went nowhere. And the idea didn't begin with this president. The first President Bush and then President Bill Clinton attempted to apply similar pressure. So far, the idea hasn't made it to the floor of Congress.

This one isn't likely to either, although pressure is building for broadcasters to return their analog spectrum as quickly as possible, with public-safety groups and wireless companies clamoring for bigger chunks of the nation's airwaves. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin said last week that he wants to see some real progress on the DTV transition or Congress might have to step in as early as this spring.

Broadcasters, meanwhile, were pointing fingers elsewhere. "What the administration fails to acknowledge is that broadcasters are the only participants in the digital-television transition making real progress," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. "To speed this transition along, cable must carry signals of broadcasters, and DTV sets must have access to local broadcast channels."

With money on its mind, the administration also wants to delay the auctions of ch. 60-69 and 52-59 until 2004 and 2006, respectively. Postponement would put an additional $6.7 billion in federal coffers, the White House says, because auctions would be held closer to the time spectrum would be available for use. If the spectrum is auctioned this June, as is still planned, it will bring in $5.4 billion, according to Office of Management and Budget estimates.

The FCC was supposed to auction ch. 60-69 last September, but the auctions have been delayed five times at the request of involved industries, which say their business plans aren't ready. Two weeks ago, the FCC assigned a June 19 date for the auction.