January 25, 1996

Telecom Bill May Sidestep Sticking Point


WASHINGTON -- Hoping to unsnag a bill to overhaul communications laws, senior Republican senators are discussing proposals to modify a controversial provision for television broadcasters and take it up in a separate bill at some point in the future.

At issue is a provision that would reserve a valuable parcel of the nation's airwaves for advanced digital television services like high-definition television.

Critics of the provision, including most recently Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, have said it amounts to a multibillion-dollar "giveaway" to broadcasters. Government economists have estimated that the licenses would be worth up to $70 billion if they were auctioned off to the highest bidder.

But many lawmakers don't want to pick a huge fight with the broadcasting industry, which has already announced plans to begin a big public relations offensive on the issue.

Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he thought the issues raised by Dole could be best addressed in a separate bill.

"I envision doing some sort of grand spectrum bill that would address plans for the next 15 years," Pressler said in an interview. Pressler said the communications bill did not currently provide broadcasters with a "giveaway" as Dole has charged, but Pressler has himself favored the idea of auctioning off the television frequencies rather than reserving them exclusively for broadcasters at no charge.

Several senior Republican staffmembers said that lawmakers had discussed dealing with the issue in a separate bill, which amounts to deferring any action on the digital television issues and would probably strenghten the ability of broadcasters to make their case to individual lawmakers.

One congressional aide said the idea was supported by Sen. Trent Lott, the majority whip, who has been a strong supporter of the broadcasting industry thus far and has received a sympathetic hearing from top aides to Dole.

But others aides said that lawmakers had reached no decision.

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