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Georgetown Partners, MAP Tag-Team on Sirius Set-Asides

Georgetown Partners and Media Access Project came to a meeting of the minds on proposed spectrum set-asides if the Federal Communications Commission approves the merger of XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio.

Together, GP and MAP want the FCC to require the companies to give up one-quarter of their spectrum as a condition of the merger. GP argued that the FCC should set aside 20% of the spectrum to be leased by an independent entity -- preferably itself -- to deliver programming in competition to the merged XM and Sirius and that would be accessible from either XM or Sirius satellite radios.

MAP wants an additional 5% to be set aside for noncommercial educational purposes, with XM and Sirius having no control -- a similar model to the public-access-channel set-asides in cable TV.

An FCC source said one of the reasons why the agency has not yet ruled on the merger -- the Department of Justice gave it a green light -- was that there was still haggling over how any spectrum set-asides would be apportioned between GP and activists for noncommercial spectrum. This might have broken the logjam.

GP agreed to handle the distribution and help select the noncommercial channels if there are more takers for that space so long as it winds up being the one who gets the other 20% for commercial purposes. The company made that proffer in a letter to FCC chairman Kevin Martin May 13.

The following day, MAP and Public Knowledge weighed in with the chairman, saying that if the FCC decides to approve the merger, it supports GP's proposal for picking noncom programmers and encoding and delivering the programming at GP's expense.

MAP and PK said they were taking no position on GP's bid for the 20% of spectrum for commercial purposes, but they followed that statement almost immediately with the observation that this approach "could be useful as a supplement to, but not a substitute for, the 5% noncommercial, educational set-aside," and added that it "welcomed" GP's hat in the ring as the operator for that set-aside."

The DOJ already weighed in on the merger, saying it has no antitrust problems with the combination of the only two national satellite-license holders because they are part of a broader audio market.

XM and Sirius offered to set aside eight channels for independent minority programmers, but they said GP's set-aside proposal would undermine the benefits of the merger and actually restrict programming for consumers.

GP is itself a minority-controlled private-equity firm.

XM and Sirius have twice extended their deal, which was to have unwound months ago absent government approval. Most recently, it was extended to May 15, but with a rolling, automatic two-week extention unless either party bailed. A spokesperson for the companies said neitherindicated that they wanted out.

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.