Spectrum Wars

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09/04/2001 - Updated 08:22 PM ET All-but-secret battle rages over fate of airwaves

By Norman Ornstein

Forget Star Wars, the moniker for missile defense, which looms ahead as one of the classic Washington battles, pitting skeptical Democrats in Congress against a determined president and his Republican congressional leaders. It has already received tons of ink and airtime. There is another battle ahead that has been virtually ignored in newspapers and on the airwaves that will dwarf Star Wars. Call it "Spectrum Wars."

Here are the basics. The world is moving rapidly toward a new era in telecommunications: the wireless world. Already close to reality in Europe, this new world will integrate cellphones, personal data assistants such as PalmPilots, computers and the Internet, allowing one to communicate with anybody and get instant information from anywhere no matter where one is in the world.

This kind of communication is known in the trade as the third generation of wireless communications 3G for short. Despite the American leadership role in telecommunications, we have been moving much more slowly than the rest of the world in this area, mainly because we have not allocated the space on the electromagnetic spectrum for this purpose. We risk losing our leadership role.

Moreover, the longer we wait, the greater the chance that in Europe and the rest of the world, they will pick a particular common spot on the airwaves for this purpose. If we do not have that space available, it will create the prospect that people will be able to communicate easily with each other in the rest of the world, but not with us, and that our equipment won't work, or won't work as well, when we travel abroad.

The Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Department of Commerce are supposed to carve out appropriate territory for this purpose on the spectrum and auction it off, with the proceeds starting to go into the public treasury by Sept. 30, 2002. No way. With analog TV, digital TV, satellite TV, cellphones, emergency services, police and fire communications, etc., we have a serious shortage of spectrum. Finding enough space for the United States to move expeditiously toward 3G and have it work without interference from other uses of the airwaves (or vice versa) is proving to be very difficult.

Congress is moving to fill the vacuum with ideas of its own. Reps. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., and Fred Upton, R-Mich., have come up with a plan. They would take the prime spectrum real estate used by the Pentagon for its combat, national security and other communications for 3G; auction it off (their estimates are that it would raise between $25 billion and $45 billion, while outside analysts value it at up to double that amount); use several billion of the proceeds to pay for the military's transition to other spaces on the band; and put the rest into a fund for military modernization.

This proposal has rapidly picked up support and momentum, for several reasons. Many lawmakers see it as a twofer: With no budget leeway available for defense-budget increases, the plan can solve the 3G problem and their post-tax-cut political problem at the same time. Broadcasters also offered enthusiastic early support, for their own parochial reason: If the military spectrum is allocated to 3G, the pressure on the broadcasters to accelerate their transition to digital television and give back their existing analog spectrum to auction off for the public's benefit will presumably decline.

But hold on. Yet other lawmakers are beginning to raise questions about a huge infusion of money into federal coffers all to be used for defense. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the most knowledgeable congressman on telecommunications issues, is drafting a bill that would use some portion of this windfall for a "Digital Dividends Trust Fund," with income from it going to educational technology, public broadcasting's conversion to digital television (DTV), the expansion of broadband communications to rural areas and the less fortunate, and a national endowment for children's television.

The military is no passive observer here, either. Pentagon officials are skeptical, to say the least, about losing their spectrum space, which is crucial for almost everything they will do in the 21st century. They want lots of money for a long transition and, most importantly, they reasonably demand an equally useful slice of spectrum for their purposes. The idea of some key Pentagon actors: Give Defense the analog spectrum that broadcasters have pledged to return to taxpayers in 2006 after they were given, free of charge, other large and valuable spectrum space to convert to digital television.

That, of course, is not what broadcasters had in mind when they threw their institutional weight behind the Pickering-Upton plan. So the National Association of Broadcasters is floating a new idea on Capitol Hill: Let the broadcasters auction off their analog spectrum and use the revenues to accelerate the rollout of DTV.

The audacity of this idea is breathtaking. After Congress gave broadcasters public airwaves worth $70 billion or far more on the condition that they would return their analog spectrum to the public in a timely fashion, they now want to keep both, auction one off and pocket the proceeds!

The public knows little about this; even some experts are unaware of the machinations. Not surprisingly, television has not covered it. But the consequences, for all of us, are staggering. Given the stakes, and the power of the players, it will get attention eventually but if past experience is any guide, only after the critical decisions have been made. Maybe some reporter, somewhere, now will decide to focus his or her attention on a potential $200-billion rape of the American taxpayer.

Norman Ornstein is a senior resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), September 05, 2001


Martin, where do you find all this stuff? Without you I would be confined to the corner of the classroom wearing a pointed dunce hat.

-- Uncle Fred (dogboy45@bigfoot.com), September 05, 2001.

Normally I have no use for what Norman Ornstein has to say, but it this case he makes a lot of sense.

-- Wayward (wayward@webtv.net), September 05, 2001.

Can someone please explain why the government outright sells spectrum instead of lease it?

-- Steve McClendon (ke6bjd@yahoo.com), September 05, 2001.

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