WASHINGTON-New Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) last week vowed to continue fighting for digital TV auctions and hinted at re-examining the 1996 telecom act that he opposed for being too regulatory.
The two initiatives, announced by McCain after being elected chairman at the start of the 105th Congress, will be difficult to move forward and could produce embarrassing defeats for the maverick Arizona lawmaker early on.
Congress recessed last week after re-electing Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) Speaker of the House. Lawmakers will return Jan. 20, the date of President Clinton’s inauguration, for a few days work and then settle in for serious business in mid February.
“I remain firmly committed to the government auctioning portions of the remaining spectrum to broadcasters,” said McCain. “While I realize it’s an uphill battle, I’m prepared to fight for the American taxpayers’ right to these profits.”
Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) briefly held the telecom reform bill hostage last year until receiving a pledge from key Senate and House members that digital TV stations would not be licensed until spectrum reform legislation was fully considered.
But Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who succeeded Dole as Senate majority leader, welshed on the auction pledge.
Lott has close ties to Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, and support from Senate and House members-GOP and Democratic alike-to move forward with a Federal Communications Commission plan to give broadcasters a second channel for them to transition from analog to digital technology. That process could take 10 to 15 years or longer.
The Clinton administration wants to auction analog TV channels several years before they are relinquished by broadcasters, a sale the White House believes could bring the U.S. Treasury $30 million.
The wireless telecom industry, FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, and conservative anti-tax interest groups supported McCain and Dole in efforts to auction digital TV channels.
The wireless industry argues broadcasters should pay for digital spectrum just as wireless carriers have. Moreover, wireless lobbyists fear competition from ancillary services broadcasters may offer on free excess spectrum.
In addition, paging, pocket telephone and radio dispatch service providers believe they could get hit with spectrum fees to make up for any spectrum auction revenue shortfall as a result of a digital TV giveaway potentially costing taxpayers billions of dollars. The FCC has raised $20 billion from digital paging and pocket telephone license auctions so far.
McCain also will face resistance if he attempts to undo the 1996 telecom bill. Many lawmakers believe it would be unwise to tamper with a fragile compromise that took years to produce.
McCain, 60, a former prisoner of war, has voiced concerns about the rise of cable TV and telephone rates since the telecom act was signed Feb. 8.
Another priority will be confirmation hearings on Clinton nominees, including appointees to the FCC, the U.S. Trade Administration and the Commerce Department.