WASHINGTON-Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) said Congress is unlikely to consider spectrum reform legislation this year, and conceded the bill he wants to craft probably will fall short of the sweeping policy changes advocated by the nation’s top technology thinkers.

“It’s going to be very difficult-politically and practically-to take away spectrum where it’s already out there,” said Pressler at a Thursday hearing.

Rather, Pressler would have reforms apply to new spectrum transferred by the military and other users. He said a closed hearing is planned with representatives from the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency.

Pressler last month gave a glimpse of what the bill might look like. He proposed during the next 10 to 15 years to free up 25 percent of federal government spectrum for commercial use; consolidate management of federal government spectrum (currently overseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration) and private sector spectrum in the Federal Communications Commission; encourage spectrum flexibility; promote increased frequency coordination by industry; and grant blocks of public safety spectrum to states.

In addition, Pressler said spectrum royalties were under consideration.

Meanwhile, pressure continues to mount in Congress, the Clinton administration, the wireless industry and academic circles to force TV broadcasters off analog spectrum. Yet, there are differences of opinion about how that should happen.

Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.), the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) favor the sale of digital TV channels.

The Clinton administration has proposed auctioning analog TV channels.

The wireless industry has paid more than $16 billion for next-generation digital paging and pocket telephone licenses, and is angered that broadcasters could receive digital spectrum for free to compete against them.

Wireless carriers also fear that if TV broadcast channels are not sold and auction revenues don’t meet budget projections, spectrum fees might be assessed on all wireless licensees to make up the difference.

“I think it’s crucial that broadcasters be confronted,” said futurist George Gilder, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. “The broadcasters are the fundamental problem.”

Gilder, however, said he believes auctioning slices of spectrum for specific purposes is nothing more than taxation and a drag on technological development. Instead, he favors opening up the airwaves to smart radios that make use of spread spectrum and other technologies for multiple purposes.

Nicholas Negroponte, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, said spectrum should be available only for mobile applications and that broadcasters should be incented or forced to migrate to optical fiber.

“A single fiber can carry more than all the spectrum today,” said Negroponte.

Peter Huber, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said the marketplace rather than the Federal Communications Commission is the ideal place for determining how to use spectrum .

“We should be dezoning spectrum. This is not a radical notion,” he added.

In written testimony, small wireless carriers and private wireless users urged Congress to proceed cautiously with auctions and other spectrum reforms.

Harold O’Dell of SMR WON, a coalition of small specialized mobile radio operators, stressed that government should have a role in setting spectrum policy.

“Management of spectrum should be the utmost priority, not the generation of money for the treasury,” said O’Dell. “Although the auctions have been successful in the short term for raising capital for the government, this process is truly an experiment. Success will be measured years from now when the winners prove their ability to build and serve the public. The potential impact of the auctioning of spectrum and its affect on the development of small business is not clearly evident.”

The hearing also served as a platform for airing controversial topics like microwave relocation and the paging application freeze.


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