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Coburn Puts Wireless Industry On Hold

Wireless companies are zeroing in this week on the Senate’s No. 1 penny pincher, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who is blocking an industry-backed proposal that may generate billions of dollars for federal coffers and telecommunications providers such as Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile.

As of Wednesday, Coburn’s hold continued to doom the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act, which would catalogue the available airwaves for a $22 million price tag to taxpayers. Wireless companies say the study eventually will expand the broadband offerings for BlackBerrys, iPhones, Androids and other bandwidth-hungry portable devices and would more than pay for itself in the long run.

The study is so important to the industry, numerous sources say, that Steve Largent, president of CTIA and a former Republican House Member from Oklahoma, is making a personal appeal to Coburn, a fellow Sooner.

“It’s very important to our industry to ensure we have sufficient spectrum to meet consumers’ demands for mobile Internet access,” said Amy Storey, a CTIA spokeswoman. “Spectrum is vital to our industry because it fuels the virtuous cycle of innovation. We hope that the bill will be passed soon.”

But until lawmakers find a way to offset the study’s costs, Coburn will continue to stand in its way, his office says.

“Dr. Coburn routinely puts holds on bills that are not offset, and this bill is no exception,” spokesman John Hart said. “As critical as the bandwidth crisis is, [Coburn] would say the budget crisis is more critical and that no amount of money the government will gain from a spectrum auction” is worth it.

“No amount of money that we will gain will be worth it if we lose our AAA rating,” Hart added. “This bill is not going to make or break the budget deficit, but this bill — along with thousands of others that are not offset — will and have put us in the hole.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) confirmed that her office has been tasked with devising an offset to meet Coburn’s demands. Potential sources of revenue to pay for the study include leftovers from a recent broadband authorization bill or last year’s digital television transition voucher program, as well as tapping proceeds from a future spectrum sale by the federal government.

Complicating matters, though, is whether the DTV transition money has already been promised to pay for the Democrats’ recent health care overhaul or if the executive branch would even allow future proceeds, which typically go to the general till, to be used to pay for an industry-specific program.

“We are currently working to address Senator Coburn’s concerns with the legislation and remain hopeful these issues will soon be resolved,” Snowe spokeswoman Julia Wanzco Lawless said Wednesday in an e-mail.

A similar bill, sponsored by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), was approved in the House by a wide margin April 14. The Senate version is sponsored by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and the Internet, and was cleared by the panel in March. Kerry’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

A telecommunications lobbyist said surging demand for Internet access on mobile devices is forcing the industry to look elsewhere for airwaves to carry the endless crush of Twitter updates, music downloads, streaming video and other data that have migrated in recent years from personal computers to mobile devices.

“We need more spectrum in the industry, and the first step is getting the inventory bill passed, so we actually know what’s out there and what can be done,” the lobbyist said.

Another lobbyist suggested that Coburn is being penny-wise, but a pound foolish in holding up the legislation. “We’re hopeful that Sen. Coburn will understand that a minimal investment will reap big, billion-dollar rewards down the road,” the source said. “His goal and our goal is the same: to move this spectrum to auction, which would mean billions of dollars for the U.S. Treasury.”