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New Wireless TV System Likely to Get Green Light From FCC

Technology: Service would share airwaves with satellite-based operators, who oppose proposal.


WASHINGTON — Federal regulators this week are expected to order satellite TV operators to make way for a new competing wireless technology that promises more local TV channels and higher speed Internet access to customers nationwide.

The Federal Communications Commission plans to approve an unusual sharing of the same airwaves between satellite TV operators and a service that uses microwave towers to beam TV signals and Internet data to small receiving dishes affixed to houses.

Over the bitter objections of satellite TV operators such as Echostar and DirecTV, the FCC has determined that the new microwave TV service doesn't interfere with satellite TV signals.

However, the agency is likely to seek industry comment on how satellite TV can best share the airwaves with the competing service. Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Budget Committee, told the FCC in a letter on Monday that the agency is required to auction any new airwaves to the highest bidder rather than set them aside for a particular company.

Still, any green light for sharing the satellite TV airwaves with other broadcast services would amount to vindication for a little-known, but politically well-connected, Washington company called Northpoint Technology.

Northpoint says its microwave TV technology would be a boon to consumers seeking an alternative to cable--in theory offering those in Los Angeles up to 100 digital TV channels, including all of the region's 23 local TV stations rather than the six currently offered by DirecTV.

"For consumers, this means they are a step closer to having more competition for video services--particularly for those living in rural and underserved areas," said Toni Cook Bush, executive vice president of Northpoint and stepdaughter of Vernon Jordan, the noted Washington lawyer who is a close friend of President Clinton. "This is a revolutionary technology that will provide access to video programming at lower prices."

The FCC's pending action stems from its frustration with the slowness of the satellite industry--which has 13 million subscribers--to add more local stations to compete more directly with the larger cable TV industry, which has about 64 million subscribers.

Nearly a year ago, Congress eased federal copyright laws so that satellite television operators could carry local stations for the first time and more directly compete with cable.

But Echostar, DirecTV and other satellite TV operators are currently carrying fewer than a tenth of the nation's 1,616 local television stations, resulting in a less extensive local TV programming offerings than provided by the cable TV industry. The problem is particularly acute in rural areas where cable is not widespread and because consumers have difficulty receiving conventional over-the-air TV signals. By some tallies, 6 million rural customers are left without any satellite access to local stations.

Northpoint's Bush said her company will work out airwave sharing arrangements with satellite operators and seek authorization as soon as possible to offer high speed Internet access and local TV and video programming. She said as early as next spring the company could be offering such services for as little as $40 a month.

But satellite TV operators said they would continue to fight any effort to share the airwaves.

"We are concerned about the potential impact on consumers," Echostar spokeswoman Karen Watson said. "Lawmakers are going to be very unhappy if they have, in any way, diminished our ability to compete with cable" in endorsing airwave sharing.

The new microwave TV service was first proposed to the FCC by Northpoint Technology in 1994. Northpoint's proposal languished at the FCC until 1998, when the company began beefing up its lobbying efforts by hiring well connected political insiders.

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