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Congress entices broadcasters to give up spectrum

Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee, and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-ME, senior member of the Commerce Committee, have jointly introduced a bill that would authorize incentive auctions of broadcast spectrum.

Called the Reforming Airwaves by Developing Incentives and Opportunistic Sharing (RADIOS) Act, the legislation would also require the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to conduct a spectrum inventory. It would allow the FCC to determine how much to compensate broadcasters for giving up spectrum.

“Freeing our nation’s airwaves to run at full capacity will help unleash innovation and maintain America’s leadership in communications technology,” Kerry said. “We know that our nation’s airwaves are a finite resource, and it’s more important than ever to use them as efficiently as possible. The analysis this legislation demands will help drive innovation, encourage competition and create jobs, all while lowering prices for consumers.”

Specifically, the bill tasks the FCC and the NTIA with conducting a comprehensive inventory of spectrum and performing spectrum surveys to determine existing spectrum use. Such data would provide a more detailed and up-to-date understanding of how spectrum is currently being used and by whom.

In addition, the legislation requires greater collaboration between the FCC and NTIA on spectrum policy and management-related issues, implementation of spectrum sharing and reuse programs, and more market-based incentives to promote efficient spectrum use. The legislation also requires a cost-benefit analysis of spectrum relocation opportunities to move certain incumbent users and services to more efficient spectrum bands. Many legacy wireless services could employ newer technologies to provide more efficient use of spectrum.

Kerry and Snowe said special interests should not be driving spectrum policy. That could include broadcasters trying to protect their turf, wireless companies trying to expand their spectrum holdings or even the FCC, whose special interest is in getting broadband deployed as swiftly and efficiently as possible.

Congress has to give the FCC permission to conduct incentive auctions, which would compensate broadcasters for moving off their spectrum and could raise funds for an interoperable emergency communications network. That network and funding have been proposed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, chairman of the full Commerce Subcommittee.

Senator Mark Warner, D-VA, who previously co-founded Nextel, also introduced an incentive auction bill to free up wireless spectrum. The bill authorizes payments to broadcasters who voluntarily give up spectrum and also directs the FCC to “establish a maximum revenue-sharing threshold applicable to all licensees within any auction.”

The Kerry-Snowe bill would extend the authority through 2017. It would allow the FCC to determine how much to compensate broadcasters and others, but it also asks the FCC and NTIA to study a variety of auction pricing.

The bill would also attempt to prevent spectrum speculation by “prohibiting the acquisition of licenses by a third party with the sole intent of relinquishing such licenses so that such party may participate in an incentive auction.” It is unclear how that would be determined.