House Spectrum Bill Provides $3 Billion for Channel Repacking

WASHINGTON: Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) today introduced a spectrum bill he says will put around $15 billion in U.S. coffers. The Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum Act of 2011 is said to be the culmination of five hearings and “extensive bipartisan negotiations” that left no one especially pleased.

“Following nearly a year of hearings, meetings, and negotiations, I am disappointed that we could not develop a bipartisan bill,” said Walden, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee. “But for the sake of the economy and public safety, we need to take the best ideas, which are represented in the JOBS Act, and move forward with a subcommittee vote on Thursday. No party, special interest, or lobby gets everything they want in this legislation.”

The bill addresses three primary areas: Reallocating TV spectrum for wireless broadband, designating bandwidth for a public safety network, and relocating federal entities using the airwaves. Among its provisions, the JOBS Act authorizes the Federal Communications Commission to hold incentive auctions, whereby broadcasters who give up spectrum receive a portion of the winning bids. The Obama Administration’s National Broadband Plan seeks to reclaim 20 TV channels for a nationwide wireless network. All stations would then have to be repacked in the remaining 29 channels.

Walden’s bill sets aside $3 billion for the repacking and for cable system retuning. The National Association of Broadcasters estimates that 672 full-power TV stations now transmitting in the targeted spectrum would have to be moved. A total of 174 stations moved to new channels for the 2009 digital transition. The NAB’s analysis also indicates as many as 210 full-power TV stations would be knocked off the air should 20 channels be reclaimed.

The Walden bill attempts to avert the loss of TV channels by allowing incentive auctions only if there is “sufficient spectrum to accommodate the broadcasters that wish to remain broadcasters following the auction, and requires the FCC to make all reasonable efforts to preserve broadcasters’ service areas,” according to a background memo on the bill.

It requires the FCC to auction the spectrum it clears, and provides the commission with the discretion to reallocate spectrum now set aside for unlicensed use, including “approximately 675 MHz of unlicensed spectrum currently available below 6 GHz,” for either dedicated or shared use.

The JOBS Act would also create a 20 MHz block of spectrum for a public safety broadband network, including the 700 MHz D Block the FCC failed to auction off under a public-private use license in 2007. Walden favored trying to re-auction the D Block, but met with opposition. The bill provides up to $6.5 billion in grants for a Public Safety Trust Fund, to be funded with $5 billion plus 10 percent of any auction revenues above $25.5 billion. A separate $1 billion grant fund would go to transition public safety communications to VoIP.

The bill will be marked up Dec. 1 in the subcommittee. A similar bill was passed by the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this year, though it requires a minimum of 84 MHz of spectrum—the equivalent of 14 TV channels—be made available before auctions can be held.

~ Deborah D. McAdams, Television Broadcast