Congress authorizes voluntary incentive auctions of TV spectrum

The payroll tax cut compromise approved by Congress on Feb. 17 authorizes voluntary incentive auctions of TV spectrum that includes protections for broadcasters to ensure viewers who rely on off-air reception will not lose access to signals.

It gives the Federal Communications Commission the authority to conduct incentive auctions of TV spectrum for the deployment of next-generation wireless networks while rewarding television station licensees that choose to participate by relinquishing spectrum with a portion of auction proceeds.

The legislation provides TV broadcasters with a key safeguard, requiring the commission to make "all reasonable efforts" to maintain the coverage area of broadcasters that do not choose to participate in the auction. It also sets aside $1.75 billion to compensate broadcasters and cable operators for the cost of repacking the TV band.

In a joint statement from House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) released following approval, the pair called the spectrum auctions "good public policy" and said they will "produce meaningful job creation when we need it most."

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), ranking member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said the legislation "delivers a 21st century spectrum policy win" and ensures the nation has "the world's leading wireless infrastructure" and that "the future of unlicensed innovation in the TV band is bright."

Besides authorizing the incentive auctions, which are estimated to raise some $15 billion for the U.S. Treasury, the legislation supports the build-out of a nationwide interoperable broadband network, reallocates the D-Block combined with other public safety spectrum to created 20MHz of contiguous spectrum for a wireless broadband and authorizes the FCC to optimize TV white spaces for unlicensed use by consolidating them and creates nationwide guard bands for use by unlicensed devices.

NAB welcomed passage of the legislation. "NAB salutes the tireless efforts of Congress to ensure that local broadcasters have a vibrant and robust future," said NAB president and CEO Gordon Smith in a statement posted on the association's website.

Smith expressed "special thanks" to Upton and Walden "for steering this bill to conclusion" and to Reps. John Dingell (D-MI) and Brian Bilbray (R-CA) "for a critically important amendment guaranteeing continued viewer access to TV station signals along the Canadian and Mexican borders."

In a statement released on the eve of passage, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said he was pleased Congress has recognized "the vital importance" of freeing up more spectrum for mobile broadband, both licensed and unlicensed.

CTIA-The Wireless Association also praised the legislation. Steve Largent, president and CEO of the association said the spectrum freed up by the incentive auction process will help the association's members meet "Americans' voracious appetite for mobile Internet anywhere and anytime."

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.