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Senate bill authorizes incentive auctions; offers broadcasters some protections

The Senate Commerce Committee June 8 approved legislation giving the FCC the authority to conduct voluntary incentive auctions aimed at clearing contiguous swaths of spectrum.

The main aim of the legislation, Senate bill S.911, is to allocate 10MHz of spectrum for public safety use and to lay the groundwork for a national, interoperable wireless broadband network to meet the needs of first responders.

For the nation’s TV broadcasters, the bill is important because it contains language giving the FCC authority to hold incentive auctions, a power FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has said is essential if the agency is to meet the goals it has laid out for clearing 120MHz of TV spectrum as envisioned in its National Broadband Plan.

The bill prevents the agency from forcing a television broadcaster to involuntarily relinquish spectrum to be used in an incentive auction. It also gives the commission the authority to reclaim spectrum licensed to TV broadcasters to carry out an incentive auction only if the same amount of contiguous spectrum, located between channels 14 and 50, in the same geographic market, is reclaimed from channels between 14 and 51. Likewise, the language covers channels located between 2 and 13.

The bill prevents the commission from involuntarily co-locating multiple TV licenses on the same channel and explicitly states that those channels voluntarily choosing to share a channel retain their carriage rights.

The bill also authorizes the commission to disperse some of the proceeds of spectrum auctions to stations “for the purposes of relocating to any alternative frequency or location” designated by the commission.

The bill gives the commission some ground rules to follow when repacking the TV spectrum. It directs the commission to “make reasonable efforts ” to maintain the amount of population covered by a licensee’s signal in its service area; to avoid increased interference to the licensee’s signal; and to, where possible, assign channels 2 through 6 to relocation channels in the UHF band if possible.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, predicted final Senate passage within the next few months.