Broadcasters who don't relinquish spectrum could face fees

Buried in President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget is an item that could alter the way people look at the term “voluntary,” at least when it comes to the proposed spectrum auctions for broadcast spectrum.

“To promote efficient use of the electromagnetic spectrum, the administration proposes to provide the FCC with new authority to use other economic mechanisms, such as fees, as a spectrum management tool,” the budget says. “FCC would be authorized to set user fees on unauctioned spectrum licenses and could be used in instances where incentive auctions are not appropriate.”

These fees would be phased in over time to determine the appropriate application and amount. Fee collections are estimated to begin in 2011 and total $4.8 billion through 2021, the budget states.

The idea of spectrum taxes for broadcasters who don’t participate in the auctions has been proposed before, but this is the first time it has been officially specified.

Another item that could affect broadcasters is the Media Bureau’s budget request. A budget item for “other contractual services” increases from $236,031 in 2011 to $1,159,003 in 2012. It is possible that the FCC plans to outsource the repacking of TV spectrum.

For broadcasters, the devil is in the details.