As vote looms, Democrats and Republicans propose separate spectrum auction bills

Washington, D.C., the House and Senate, and even the House itself are all politically divided these days. The stalemate continued this week as both the Democrats and Republicans introduced separate bills in the House for broadcast incentive auctions. A vote on the legislation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee was set for late Thursday.

For broadcasters, the differences in the bills are in the details. Both still authorize auctions for broadcast spectrum, and give the FCC authority to reclaim, reauction and compensate broadcasters for their spectrum. Both would also allocate — rather than auction — D block spectrum for a national, interoperable emergency wireless communications network.

The key differences between the bills deal with how much money broadcasters will get from the auctions, how unlicensed spectrum is treated in the legislation, the governance of the public safety network and the FCC's authority over bidding eligibility and treatment of next-generation 911 service.

The Republicans
Led by Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), the Republicans hold the majority in the House, making their version the most likely for passage. Like that of both versions, it authorizes the FCC to hold incentive auctions of broadcast spectrum and compensate the broadcasters from the proceeds of the auctions.

Broadcasters who decide not to give up spectrum would be compensated up to $3 billion for moving or sharing channels with others broadcasters. Cable companies would be compensated for carrying new channels.

The bill also allocates spectrum for an interoperable broadband public safety network, much like a Senate version of the bill that has already passed the Commerce Committee.

After paying back the broadcasters and establishing a public safety network, the bill estimates about $15 billion left over for deficit reduction. It requires the FCC to "make all reasonable efforts to preserve ... the coverage area and population served of each broadcast television licensee."

In lieu of reimbursement for repacking channels, broadcasters would be allowed to use some of their spectrum for nonbroadcast uses, as long as they continue to provide a free broadcast channel. This is in response to broadcasters who claim they can help relieve wireless congestion by using one-to-many spectrum offloads of wireless traffic at peak times.

The Republican legislation does not allow the FCC to force broadcasters who do not participate in the auction from trading a UHF channel for a VHF channel.

The Democrats
House Democrats, frustrated they could not agree on a bipartisan bill with the Republicans, introduced their own legislation this week. As with the Republican bill, the Democratic bill says the auction must be voluntary and that the FCC must make best efforts to preserve the coverage areas of TV stations that remain.

It would also cover the costs for moving or sharing channels, and compensate multichannel video providers who carry the reconfigured broadcast signals. The FCC is also prohibited from involuntarily relocating broadcasters from UHF to VHF spectrum.

The FCC would be prohibited from involuntarily co-locating multiple television broadcast station licensees on the same channel. Any licensee that voluntarily elects to be co-located would retain the carriage rights associated with the shared location.

The commission would also be required to treat as confidential the identity of broadcast licensees participating in an incentive auction. There also could be only one incentive auction. Not later than 18 months following enactment, the commission must complete a rulemaking proceeding to carry out the reorganization of television broadcast spectrum.

A new Incentive Auction Relocation Fund is created to compensate broadcast licensees for costs associated with relocation and modification. One billion dollars would be made available to the fund for costs associated with relocation, including costs of new equipment, installation and construction as well as costs incurred by MVPDs.