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Americans in rural markets may soon be able to watch local news

WASHINGTON - Americans in rural markets may soon be able to watch local news, sports and weather for the first time, thanks to legislation that gives businesses an incentive to offer local television signals.

The Senate passed a bill Thursday offering $1.25 billion in federal loan guarantees to entice satellite, cable and wireless companies to deliver local TV signals to rural areas where millions can't get them now. That's because the viewers may live outside the broadcast signal range of local TV stations' signals, are in not served by cable companies or have broadcast satellite subscriptions that are not yet offering the local channels.

"Just because they are small, doesn't mean they should be left out," said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., one of the authors of the bill.

The loan guarantees would be capped at 80 percent. That means the federal government would promise to cover 80 percent of the loans if the borrower defaults.

The bill is technologically neutral - meaning that companies getting the loan guarantees could use cable, satellite or any other type of service to deliver the local signals. But satellites may offer the most cost-effective option, with the ability to cover the greatest rural area.

The House Commerce Committee has approved a similar bill, and the Agriculture Committee in the House has cleared one that would guarantee 100 percent of the loans. The House must either merge those two or pick one before the legislation can advance. The White House has taken no position on the legislation.

The loans would have to be approved by a board composed of the secretaries of Treasury and Agriculture and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. They could choose designees who would have to be confirmed by the Senate.

Lawmakers forged agreement Thursday to allow rural cooperatives to participate - in addition to lenders insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. - as long as they meet certain conditions.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said the bill was structured so that taxpayers would not be placed at financial risk by the loan guarantees.

"The bill maximizes the chances that the loans will be paid back," said Gramm, who last year blocked action on the measure.

An amendment added by Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., also seeks to promote the rollout of high-speed Internet service - dozens of times faster than today's dial-up connections - to rural communities.

Projects seeking to receive the local TV loan guarantees would get special consideration if they also provide high-speed Internet access and National Weather Service information to those communities.

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