Senators halt NextWave deal benefiting Native venture

AP Photo/Peter Haley/The News Tribune
FAIRBANKS -- Two U.S. senators are raising objections to a proposed deal that would let three Alaska Native corporations keep control of wireless telephone radio frequencies purchased in January.

In response to the objections, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, agreed to keep the deal out of a Defense Department appropriations bill.

Stevens told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner he had little choice, even though he supports the agreement.

Sens. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., called the proposed deal an outrage. Hollings said the agreement would set a bad precedent, and McCain said it at least needed hearings.

The proposed deal settles a disagreement between the Federal Communications Commission and bankrupt NextWave Telecom Inc. NextWave had failed to pay for wireless spectrum it bought five years ago for $4.3 billion, so the FCC repossessed and reauctioned the frequencies.

Alaska Native Wireless, a joint venture between Doyon Ltd., Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and Sealaska, bought a large portion of NextWave’s wireless spectrum in the January auction. The partnership won wireless spectrum rights in such major markets as New York City, Los Angeles, Denver and New Haven, Conn.

But NextWave convinced an appeals court this summer that the FCC should have stood in line with other creditors. The issue is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rather than continue that litigation, however, the Department of Justice worked out a settlement that would allow the successful bidders to keep the spectrum they purchased. The government would then pay NextWave $5.8 billion to drop all its claims.

The Justice Department asked that Congress approve the agreement by Dec. 31.

But Hollings said he doesn’t like the deal or the deadline.

"They’ve put a gun to our head," he said at a news conference. Hollings is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction, and McCain is the ranking Republican on the committee.

Faced with such opposition, Stevens said, there was little he could do.

"When the chairman and ranking member of a standing committee object to an amendment, there’s little chance that such an amendment will stand when challenged on the floor," Stevens said through his spokeswoman Melanie Alvord.

The problem is that such language is not germane to the bill’s subject of defense appropriations. So Hollings and McCain could rise on the floor and raise a point of order against the amendment’s consideration. To defeat that would require 60 votes.

Hollings also objected to the NextWave payment.

"Congress is being asked to reward a group of speculators who put 10 percent down, litigated, lobbied and lawyered for five years, and are now on the cusp of a $5 billion payment," he said.

The best thing Congress can do, he said, would be to "clarify that bankruptcy claims do not prevail over the FCC’s role as trustee of our airwaves."

12/23/2001 - 8:00pm