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Sensible About Spectrum

A TV-saturated nation is about to leap from analog broadcasting to digital broadcasting, and techie and impenetrable as that may sound to many of us, it has implications that should get us off our couches to write our legislators.

Consider the financial and budgetary stakes. When broadcasters go digital, they'll be able to divide each analog channel they now hold into a number of new digital channels. This means a burst of new spectrum capacity and a burst in the dollar value of each current channel. Remember the airwaves are public property parceled out to private concerns that are required, theoretically at least, to operate them with the public interest in mind.

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Some sharp minds in Congress - including, notably, former Senate majority leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole - recognized a possible windfall for the public treasury. All that new spectrum capacity should be auctioned off, they asserted, not merely given to broadcasters.

That idea, however fiscally sound, has not been warmly embraced by others in Congress, targeted by the broadcasting lobby. It also has caused shivers among municipal authorities, who worry that a spectrum auction would leave their urgent needs for enhanced radio capacity for emergency services out in the cold. Police, fire, and rescue services have grown beyond the spectrum resources now available to them. Without new channels, they can't move toward the intercommunication between local, state, and federal services that would clearly serve the public better.

But, thanks to Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, there is a plan for reaping added billions in public revenues from the airwaves while giving emergency services more space on the spectrum. His bill would set aside 24 megahertz of spectrum between current TV channels 60-69 for expanded emergency use. The remaining spectrum represented by those channels would be auctioned by the federal government, with 10 percent of the proceeds earmarked for grants to help strengthen local emergency services.

Senator McCain's approach admirably serves the public interest. But another facet of the public's interest should be attended to as well: the need to make the airwaves more readily, and affordably, available to candidates for public office. Media watchdogs note the switch to digital offers an opportunity to firmly nudge the industry. As broadcasters are granted, or sold, new parts of the spectrum, they can be required to contribute to a "time bank" for use by candidates. This could reduce the costs of TV political advertising and thus help demolish the shabby edifice of campaign fund-raising that now disgraces our politics.

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