Latest Spectrum Bill Prohibits Involuntary Turnover

WASHINGTON: A spectrum-related bill rolled out on Capitol Hill today explicitly prohibits involuntary reclamation. The “Voluntary Incentive Auctions Act of 2010” states that, “The Federal Communications Commission shall not reclaim frequencies of broadcast television licensees or any other licensees directly or indirectly on an involuntary basis.”

Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), communications subcommittee chairman, and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), its ranking member, introduced the bill. The intent is to free up radio frequency spectrum for the FCC’s National Broadband Plan without elbowing incumbents out. The bill authorizes the FCC to share auction proceeds with broadcasters, and gives the agency discretion to determine how much.

The Plan, unveiled in March, included a proposal to share auction proceeds with TV station licensees who voluntarily give up spectrum. It seeks to reclaim 120 MHz--around 40 percent--of the spectrum allocated for television broadcasting. The Plan received President Obama’s official blessing last month. (See “Obama Memo Orders Agencies to Free 500 MHz for Broadband.”)

The Boucher-Stearns bill applies “only in instances in which television broadcasters or other spectrum holders willingly enter into agreements with the FCC...”

Boucher emphasized the goal of the legislation was to “ensure that any incentive auctions the [FCC] conducts are truly voluntary.”

Stearns said, “No spectrum licensee, whether a broadcaster or wireless provider, should be forced to give up the spectrum they currently hold.

One thing the bill does not address is potential new fees levied on broadcasters who do not hand over spectrum. The FCC has floated the notion, to the objection of the National Association of Broadcasters.

“Stations that choose not to participate in a voluntary incentive auction must not be subjected to onerous new spectrum taxes that would make it increasingly difficult for stations to finance local programming, operations and newsgathering efforts,” NAB chief Gordon Smith recently said in a letter to Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council.

The Boucher-Stearns bill follows an announcement from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) last week that he intended to introduce legislation authorizing the FCC to share auction proceeds with broadcasters. The FCC cannot do so without a Congressional mandate. Rockefeller’s play came just two days after Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) bowed a revenue-sharing bill.

Several other spectrum-related bills circulating on the Hill call for spectrum inventories and auctioning of the public-safety D Block. The FCC is scheduled to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on its broadcast-spectrum proposals this quarter.

-- Deborah D. McAdams