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A double breaker

Dale Hatfield has what former FCC Commissioner Jim Quello would call a "tough putt." The chief of the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology must decide whether a plan by Northpoint Technology to reuse DBS spectrum for a terrestrial wireless cable service interferes significantly with DBS reception.

It won't be easy because Northpoint, desperate to win approval, and the DBS operators DirecTV and EchoStar, determined to block it, have been turning up the political heat. And right about now, he (along with everybody on the eighth floor) must be starting to feel it.

That heat notwithstanding, he's got to stick to the numbers-that is, the physics of Northpoint's proposal. If, in reviewing the testing by Northpoint and the DBS opposition-unfortunately, the FCC can't afford its own real-world tests-Hatfield finds that it would not significantly increase outages for DBS subscribers as the DBS operators claim, he must say so loud and clear in his recommendation to the FCC commissioners.

If, on the other hand, that analysis concludes Northpoint would disrupt service to the extent the DBS operators contend, he must say so equally loudly and clearly. Any equivocation only opens the door wide for a purely political decision on the eighth floor.

We say all this knowing this is not a black-and-white decision and that the truth about the interference probably lies somewhere between where Northpoint and the DBS operators say it is and that how much interference can be tolerated is something of a subjective matter. That's why it's a tough putt.

Here are a couple related matters for the FCC to mull if it ultimately approves terrestrial reuse of DBS spectrum. First: Why should 500 MHz of prime spectrum in every TV market go to Northpoint and its affiliates? Northpoint claims that the procedural window for DBS spectrum reuse applications opened and closed long ago and everybody else is simply out of luck. But shouldn't this diversity-conscious FCC give others a chance to apply? Second: We thought the FCC was no longer giving spectrum away for free, even to clever engineers like Northpoint's Saleem Tawil, who discovered it.