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Broadcast auction bill passes Senate Commerce Committee

Using a 9/11 deadline for an emergency communications network to drive the deadline for passage, the Senate Commerce Committee last week voted 21 to 4 to authorize auctions that would compensate broadcasters that choose to give up their spectrum for wireless broadband services.

The only votes against the bill were from Republicans. They included Senators Olympia Snowe, R-ME; Jim DeMint, R-SC; Pat Toomey, R-PA; and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL.

If passed by the full Senate and the House, the new law would authorize compensation to broadcasters who agree to auction their spectrum. It would also compensate broadcasters who choose to keep their spectrum but are “repacked” to make the spectrum available for wireless use. Cable operators would be compensated for any changes they have to make to handle the signals of repacked broadcasters.

Called S. 911, the Senate bill is more about creating an interoperable network for first responders than about broadcasters. The emergency network would be built out of funds from the auction of reclaimed broadcast spectrum.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-WA, amended the bill to make it clear that “white spaces” of unused spectrum in the broadcast band would still be available nationally and in each market after the FCC repacks the spectrum. Broadcasters have worried that unlicensed devices may cause interference to TV stations.

Republicans were split on their support of the legislation. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, chairman of the committee, praised the bipartisan work of ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-TX, in helping him achieve bipartisan backing for the bill.

However, Sen. Jim DeMint, perhaps the fiercest opponent, said he feared the creation of a new board to oversee the public safety network was made up of cabinet members and administration appointees that would create a system that is second rate to one created by private industry.

Though DeMint favored the broadcast auctions, he said the legislation might compel first responders to comply more with federal regulations than in getting access to the network.

The path for the legislation is still far from clear. The legislation must now pass the full Senate. It would then go to the Republican-controlled House, where leaders of the Energy & Commerce Committee continue to prefer the D block spectrum be auctioned rather than allocated as in the Senate bill. House Bill, H.R. 607, the Broadband for First Responders Act of 2011, would also reallocate the D block.