House draft bill authorizes voluntary incentive auction of TV spectrum

The House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee has scheduled a markup for Dec. 1 of draft legislation that would authorize the FCC to conduct incentive auctions to clear TV spectrum.

The draft bill, Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum (JOBS) Act of 2011, lays out the ground rules for the commission to follow in conducting the auction and provides for creation of a $3 billion TV broadcaster relocation fund from the proceeds of the auction. The draft legislation includes several key provisions that protect the interests of OTA viewers and stations alike, including restricting to one the number of incentive auctions the commission may conduct, authorizing a single “reorganization,” commonly referred to as repacking, of the broadcast band and directing the FCC to maintain television stations’ geographical and population coverage.

Greg Walden (R-OR), chairman of the subcommittee, unveiled the Republican bill Nov. 29 after failing to reach a bipartisan agreement on the legislation.

“Following nearly a year of hearings, meetings and negotiations, I am disappointed that we could not develop a bipartisan bill,” Walden said in a press release announcing the JOBS Act.

“No party, special interest or lobby gets everything they want in this legislation,” he said in the release.

A “discussion draft” of the bill available on the subcommittee’s website says the amount of compensation a television licensee would accept in return for voluntarily giving up spectrum usage rights will be determined through a reverse auction process in which at least two competing licensees participate. The draft specifies that $3 billion from the proceeds of broadcast incentive auctions will be set aside in a TV broadcaster relocation fund.

The draft spells out a number of protections for television licensees choosing to participate in an auction, such as protecting the carriage rights of licensees that give up spectrum to share a channel; requiring the FCC to “make all reasonable efforts to preserve” the coverage area and population of repacked stations, barring the agency from involuntary relocation of a station from a UHF channel to a VHF channel and reimbursing the costs incurred by a TV licensee to relocate to a new channel assignment.

The bill also leaves opens the door for TV broadcasters to begin using part of their spectrum for services other than television. In lieu of accepting a reimbursement for relocation expenses, a broadcaster may accept and the commission may grant “as it considers appropriate,” a waiver of the FCC’s service rules, according to the bill. To maintain the waiver, the broadcast station must provide at least one TV program stream on its spectrum at no charge to the public.

Since unveiling its National Broadband Plan, the FCC has sought authority to conduct incentive auctions to clear spectrum, including 120MHz of DTV spectrum, for wireless broadband Internet use.

A statement on the NAB website from Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the trade association, called the bill a “major step forward in ensuring that local television stations will continue to be able to serve our vast and diverse audiences.”

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.