House Subcommittee approves spectrum auction legislation, but fight’s not over

The Republican-controlled House subcommittee last week approved its version of legislation to authorize spectrum auctions for broadcasters and create a nationwide mobile network for emergency use. The vote was 17-6, and the bill now heads to the full House Energy and Commerce Committee for debate.

Republican Rep. Greg Walden’s communications and technology subcommittee pushed through its version of the Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum Act (JOBS Act).

“It is a bill that frees up vast swaths of valuable spectrum, both licensed and unlicensed, that when put into service will unleash new technologies,” Walden said. “It will spur innovation.”

Democrats disagreed with that assessment and warned that the legislation may not survive in the Senate, where they hold the majority. Some parts of the legislation were highly controversial.

For example, on a voice vote, the subcommittee approved a hot button amendment by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) that would prohibit the FCC from enforcing net neutrality rules on new spectrum license holders. Ranking member Henry Waxman (D-CA) warned that amendment alone was a poison pill that could kill the bill in the Senate.

The bill was also amended to require the FCC to resolve broadcaster spectrum coordination issues with Canada and Mexico, to set aside funding for e-911 call centers and to avoid security risks when constructing the emergency communications network.

There was also the issue of money for broadcasters. The Republicans proposed giving them up to $3 billion as compensation for being left behind or sharing channels. That is three times the amount Democratic versions of the legislation provided.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) joined Waxman in questioning why Republicans were offering broadcasters $2 billion more than the estimated $1 billion established by the Congressional Budget Office. Walden responded the number was a cap and that much of it might not be needed. Waxman said the one thing Republicans frequently said — and he agreed with — is that caps also usually become the floor (or starting point for negotiations).

When asked where the $3 billion figure had come from, Walden said the original bill did not put any figure on compensation and would have required that broadcasters be paid from the proceeds before any money went to fund the emergency broadband. That, he said, could tie up that money for years. But by going ahead and putting $3 billion in the fund for the broadcasters, the rest of the money would be available quicker for emergency communications.

The Democrats did not buy that Republican argument. Waxman expressed mock surprise that the Republicans — who professed concern over the potential deficit reduction dollars that would be lost if the FCC set aside some $1 billion in spectrum for more unlicensed use — would set aside up to $3 billion for broadcasters.

Democrats also argued that the legislation would leave no room for unlicensed services like super Wi-Fi to be used in the turned over TV spectrum.

“Closing spectrum bands to future innovation is foolhardy,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA).

She offered an amendment that would have opened up the TV spectrum to unlicensed uses and would have created an independent governing board for the nationwide public safety network. Her amendment was rejected.

The legislation would also allocate 10MHz of spectrum to public safety agencies. The JOBS Act would provide up to $6.5 billion in grants to help build the public safety network.

A Senate version of the legislation has already passed out of committee and is awaiting a floor vote.