Broadcasters to get relocation fees for ENG operations

The FCC’s unanimous approval of a $4.8 billion plan to restructure a system of wireless licenses means television broadcasters stand to be paid about $512 million for the relocation of their electronic newsgathering operations.

That is if the FCC’s controversial Nextel decision, made late last week, survives the scrutiny of Congress and the courts.

The complex spectrum swap was made to provide more reliable communications services for the nation’s fire, police, hospital and other safety workers. The plan involves reorganizing the 800MHz band where Nextel operates its mobile phone service to resolve interference problems with emergency services communications.

The deal would move Nextel to the 1.9GHz band — spectrum that television broadcasters now use for ENG operations. Prior to the FCC vote, the NAB and the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) joined Nextel in agreeing to a plan for moving broadcast newsgathering operations from the 1.9GHz band to the 2025MHz - 2110MHz band.

In return for receiving replacement spectrum at 1.9GHz, Nextel agreed to provide relocation compensation for television stations estimated to be about $512 million. If the costs run higher, Nextel will be obligated to pay the overage. The move of the broadcast ENG services would take place over 30 months and is dependent on the FCC decision actually taking effect.

Nextel’s rivals in the cell phone industry have argued that the company is trying to take advantage of taxpayers by swapping the wireless licenses it now uses for more valuable spectrum. Verizon Wireless argues that Nextel should be required to buy the airwaves at an auction, as other wireless carriers have done for the past decade.

Although Verizon has threatened a lawsuit over the issue, its statement last week after the FCC vote urged Congress to intervene to block the spectrum deal. That could easily happen since some members of Congress have already expressed concern about Nextel getting the frequencies without an auction.

The General Accounting Office launched a review of the FCC’s plans last week at the request of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N. J.). House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) wrote to FCC Chairman Michael Powell prior to the vote, asking him to delay any action on the matter until the GAO files its report.

Due to the last minute addition of a series of complex new conditions to the deal, Nextel avoided taking an immediate position on the FCC’s final order. The company wants to study the commission’s formal decision before it goes along with any deal. The decision may not be published for several weeks.

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