I hereby nominate NBC President Robert Wright official spokesman of the cellular telephone industry. That’s right, the same Bob Wright who warned lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee last week the equivalent of `The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!’

“If you auction off spectrum in the top 25 markets, it will go cellular,” Wright warned.

So what. That’s what free-market advocates who rule Capitol Hill say is supposed to happen. If folks out there with big bucks believe the masses want digital TV, let them buy a broadcast license or two at an auction.

What Wright said is, given the choice, the high rollers will opt for a pocket telephone license over a digital TV license. Maybe there’s a good reason for that, like consumer demand.

I’m not so sure it’s there for digital TV. Not every TV broadcaster is necessarily hot for digital, especially ones in smaller markets.

Wright was upset about a plan pushed by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Larry Pressler, R-S.D. and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, that would auction digital TV licenses in the 25 biggest cities to raise $14 billion from spectrum auctions over the next seven years. That is what the budget resolution passed in June by the GOP-led Congress requires in order to zero out the deficit by 2002.

Wright said broadcasters need the second channel (six megahertz) to help them make the transition from analog to digital TV. And he promises TV station licensees will gladly return the extra channel 10 or 15 years from now. You’ve got my word on it.

Up-front auctions will doom digital TV development in the United States, broadcasters say. They warn, too, of a dark, evil force just waiting to swallow up digital TV channels.

Hurry! Run for your life! AT&T Corp., Sprint Corp. and Baby Bells armed with pocket telephones are trying to take over the airwaves!

Truth is, they can’t. There are rules that cap the commercial wireless spectrum a firm can hold in any one market at 45 megahertz.

The cellular industry entered the fray because it believes that if broadcast spectrum is not sold, the $14 billion will not be generated and lawmakers will resort to levying spectrum fees on the entire telecommunications industry. If the wireless industry must pay for digital spectrum, so should broadcasters, according to the cellular lobby.

Maybe so, but it’s also true cellular carriers can make the transition from analog to digital technology without shutting down operations. Without a second channel, TV stations would have to go dark before converting to digital. And everyone’s TV set would be obsolete in short order.

There is added concern that on top of getting spectrum for free, broadcasters will be given flexibility to offer competing wireless services, like paging.

It was all fine drama, the Senate hearing, worthy of the Emmys NBC captured last week. In other words, good entertainment. It’s highly unlikely digital TV channels will be auctioned. The House found $14 billion without putting digital TV licenses on the auction block.

A more fundamental point was raised by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., who attacked Republicans for allowing budget policy to shape telecommunications policy. Not only that, he thinks the GOP budget is a sham.

“This is a fraudulent budget,” said Hollings. “It’s totally unrealistic. They can’t get these monies.”

Maybe there should be truth-in-budgeting law.


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