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Senate Commerce Committee Passes Spectrum Auction Bill

WASHINGTON: The Senate Commerce Committee today passed a bill authorizing the incentive auctions of TV airwaves, 21-4. The “Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act” provides the Federal Communications Commission with the authority to split auction proceeds with broadcasters who voluntarily relinquish spectrum to be used for wireless broadband. The legislation is part of a larger bill focused on creating a wireless public safety network. Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller (D.-W.V.) said he would push the bill to a floor vote as soon as possible.

“I intend to have conversations with leadership immediately about timing for a full vote by the Senate,” Rockefeller said in a statement following the vote. “I strongly encourage my colleagues in the House to also move forward with this legislation so that we can sign it into law by September, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”

Among other things, the bill would allocate the D block of 700 MHz spectrum for public safety. The commission failed to auction off the D Block during the 2008 700 MHz auctions; it was then offered in a public-private configuration that no private entities found attractive enough to meet the minimum bid. This bill would allow public safety officials could lease capacity on their network when not in use, on a preemptible basis.

It also directs the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to do research on wireless technologies.

With regard to incentive auctions, the proceeds would be split between broadcasters and the cost of building out the public safety network. They can also be spent to protect white spaces, per an amendment from Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, home of Microsoft.

Microsoft was instrumental in opening up white spaces for unlicensed devices and is now vying to manage a white-space spectrum data base. White spaces consist of spectrum in the TV band not occupied by TV signals and traditionally left fallow to prevent interference. Relinquishment of certain TV licenses would result repacking the TV band, and possibly eliminating white spaces in certain markets.

Any surplus funds from incentive auctions would go to the Treasury. The committee expects that surplus to be “more than $10 billion.”

Coleman Bazelon of the Brattle Group has estimated that incentive auctions could raise as much as $20 billion, but it all depends on how many broadcasters pony up how much spectrum. The general chatter in the broadcast community amounts to, “nothin’ doin’.” National Association of Broadcasters chief Gordon Smith issued a statement after today’s vote, saying it would “work with policymakers to help ensure that broadcasters are able to deliver on the promise of free and local digital television made to tens of millions of viewers.”

~ Deborah D. McAdams