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Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Spectrum Auctions

When a 5.8-magnitude earthquake rattled greater Washington, D.C., Tuesday both broadcast and wireless industry advocates seized on the shakeup as a lobbying and public relations opportunity.

“Policymakers debating spectrum policy ought to take note that the one reliable communications service during today’s earthquake was the original wireless technology — free and local broadcasting,” declared a statement released Tuesday by Dennis Wharton, National Association of Broadcasters executive vice president of communications.

Over at CTIA, organization president and former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) blogged that the earthquake proved exactly the opposite: While TV and radio played a role, “most Americans used their mobile devices to find out if their family and friends were safe. Yesterday’s earthquake underscored the vital need for our industry to get more spectrum.”

It was just the latest tit-for-tat in an increasingly heated spectrum lobbying battle that’s pitting broadcasters against wireless service providers, and that will come to a head on Capitol Hill this fall.

At issue is who gets access to the valuable spectrum, or airwaves, that keep TV stations on the air and that wireless providers covet to feed the nation’s voracious appetite for cellphones, tablets and other mobile devices.

Several factors are fueling the spectrum fight. The Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction must come up with a $1.5 trillion deficit reduction plan by Nov. 23, and some see the airwaves as a lucrative source of revenue. By some estimates, spectrum auctions proposed by the Federal Communications Commission could generate anywhere from $15 billion to more than $30 billion.

The upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks also has moved the spectrum dispute front and center. Several bills, including one introduced by Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), would combine auctions with a plan to allocate 10 megahertz of spectrum, known as the “D-block,” to public safety. The recent earthquake and Hurricane Irene have also put the spotlight on safety and communications concerns during disasters.

Broadcasters are taking the spectrum debate very seriously and have responded aggressively. The NAB swung into action earlier this summer, launching a new advocacy and education website dubbed “The Future of TV.” Bob Okun, the former head of NBC Universal’s Washington office, who this year launched his own firm called the O Team, registered to lobby for the NAB in July.

The NAB also created an ad warning that Congressional action could force millions of viewers to “lose access to free local news” and that “others could lose their HD.” The association made the spot available to some 14,000 radio and TV stations for free (though not all of them ran it) and generated some 125,000 phone calls and emails to Capitol Hill, said Wharton.

Thanks in part to that effort, the NAB helped fend off a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to include spectrum auctions in the recent debt limit agreement Congress approved at the beginning of the month. Reid had said those auctions would generate $15 billion.

But the fight now moves to the 12-member, bipartisan Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, which many expect to revisit spectrum auctions as a revenue source. The NAB does not oppose voluntary spectrum auctions, said Wharton, but wants to ensure that broadcasters are not forced off the air.

The auctions outlined in the FCC’s 2010 National Broadband Plan, which would reclaim 120 megahertz of spectrum from broadcasters, would force 40 percent of full-power local TV stations off their current channel assignments, according to the NAB. To conduct “incentive auctions,” which would allow broadcasters to share in the proceeds, the FCC needs Congressional approval.

“Our message to Congress is: Don’t harm the broadcasters who don’t volunteer to go out of business,” Wharton said.

NAB allies include Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who in June blasted the FCC for failing to respond fully to his request for details on how incentive auctions would affect the broadcast industry. Dingell said he was “deeply disturbed” by what he called the agency’s incomplete response. Dingell has written a spectrum bill as a companion to Rockefeller’s that includes more protections for broadcasters.

Wireless advocates, including those at CTIA, AT&T and Verizon, are shopping a different message to Capitol Hill: Their industry can help reduce the deficit, generate jobs and improve public safety. CTIA has run its own inside-the-Beltway ads with the message: “NAB is making dire claims that a voluntary spectrum auction will end local television. That’s not so.”

“Our members want to purchase this spectrum from the U.S. Treasury for billions of dollars,” CTIA spokeswoman Amy Storey said.

Two of the 12 deficit committee members have telecommunications policy expertise, furthering speculation that the panel will take up the spectrum debate: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.). A spectrum measure could also move as stand-alone legislation or as part of the appropriations process as the fiscal year winds down next month.

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