Stay analog and pay, White House warns

Feb 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The Bush administration has this message for commercial television broadcasters: Return your analog spectrum to the government on time or pay a half-billion dollars in annual fees.
The proposal, strongly opposed by the National Association of Broadcasters, is buried in the White House’s new fiscal year 2003 budget, released early last week, and requires legislation to implement. The administration said it’s simply using financial incentives to speed the industry’s transition to digital.
“Upon return of their analog spectrum license to the [Federal Communications Commission], individual broadcasters will be exempt from the fee,” the White House said.
But a spectrum fee would be a huge setback for broadcasters, subjecting them to potentially billions of dollars in fines, because many stations are likely to hang on to their analog spectrum well beyond 2006, when the government officially expects it to be returned.
The White House wants to slap stations still offering analog signals in 2007 or later with the payments.
This isn’t the first TV spectrum fee to surface in a presidential budget: The Bush and Clinton administrations both proposed similar levies. Those proposals died in Congress.
At deadline, the fate of the newest proposal remained unclear.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., who has opposed such fees in the past, is not taking a stand this time around, partly because he thinks broadcasters are beginning to make progress converting to digital.
“The president’s budget assumes that the transition to digital will fail. We don’t believe that,” spokesman Ken Johnson said.
NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said if the administration wants to speed the transition, it should instead resolve disputes over digital must-carry to ensure that DTV stations are available on cable.
Meanwhile, the White House wants the FCC to receive $278 million in funding for the next fiscal year, an increase of $33 million over 2002 funding.
And it recommended that the auction of spectrum for analog TV channels 60 to 69 be delayed until 2004. The auction has been postponed six times since May 2000 and is now slated for June 19. It said the auction of analog channels 52 to 59, also slated for June 19, should be delayed until 2006. The later auction dates could allow the government to reap an additional $6.7 billion for the U.S. Treasury, the White House said.