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March 27, 1997

Giving Away the Airwaves

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton Administration, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission are about to make the already difficult job of balancing the Federal budget harder than it has to be.

In just a few days, the F.C.C. is going to give away the first broadcast licenses for digital television to broadcasters for absolutely nothing. If the Government sold this new spectrum, it could be worth $12 billion to $70 billion.

The network news programs are proud of their commendable watchdog segments like "The Fleecing of America," "Reality Check" and "Your Money." But the networks and many newspapers that own TV stations have largely ignored their own fleecing of the taxpayers.

The broadcasters insist that they need these airwaves -- on which they will duplicate their programming in digital -- to make the transition to high-definition television. O.K., but why not pay a fair price?

Since 1993, wireless phone and direct-broadcast satellite companies have paid for airwaves to upgrade or offer new services. Just last year, the Government auctioned off licenses for lower-quality spectrum, raising a whopping $20 billion.

We don't give away trees to newspaper publishers. Why should we give away more airwaves to broadcasters? The airwaves are a natural resource. They do not belong to the broadcasters, phone companies or any other industry. They belong to the American people.

The stakes in this debate are high. The national debt now exceeds $5 trillion. This year, the budget deficit is expected to top $112 billion. Balancing the budget with the help of proceeds from the new digital spectrum could lower interest rates by two percentage points, reducing costs for home mortgages and student loans.

While the needs of less economically viable stations and those in rural areas should be considered, broadcasters should be expected to pay for additional spectrum. After all, broadcasters have a long history of paying top dollar for existing channels. And the new technology will allow them to cram other potentially lucrative services -- additional TV stations and CD-quality radio broadcasts -- into the same amount of spectrum that currently accommodates one TV signal.

The Clinton Administration and a majority of the F.C.C. commissioners insist that the transition to the digital spectrum will allow the Government to sell the old analog spectrum by 2002. Indeed, the projected money from this sale is used by President Clinton to claim a balanced budget by then. But few believe Mr. Clinton's budget is really balanced, and even fewer believe the transition to high-definition TV can be completed according to his timetable.

As it is, this mandated transition to digital television is going to cost taxpayers plenty. Consumers will find their current televisions rendered obsolete by digital broadcasts. Replacing all 222 million TV sets in the country could cost upward of $200 billion. That's pretty serious sticker shock for "free" broadcast television.

Before leaving the Senate, I secured a written commitment from the Congressional leadership and all five F.C.C. commissioners to prohibit the distribution of digital-TV licenses until Congress passed legislation concerning the use of these airwaves. Strangely, no new laws have been passed, and the resolve of members of Congress has melted (with the exception of Senator John McCain). And despite their commitment, F.C.C. commissioners plan to proceed with the giveaway.

Given recent developments, what's the rush? Broadcasters are scrambling to meet the Government's timetable. President Clinton belatedly proposed that in exchange for the licenses, broadcasters provide free time to political candidates. Still others propose trading licenses for a stronger TV-ratings system. At the very least, the next step should be to let the free market work and delay the giveaway until politicians and regulators get their priorities straight.

Taxpayers should demand better from the President, Congress, the F.C.C. and the broadcasters. After all, we're talking about billions of dollars -- and that's your money.

Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader, was the 1996 Republican Presidential candidate.

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