Vague ‘Voluntary Spectrum Auction Bill’ introduced in House

Two House members have introduced legislation designed to help ensure that broadcasters who choose to give up their spectrum for broadband services do so voluntarily. However, the new bill does not address the issue of taxing spectrum retained by the television broadcasters.

Called the “Voluntary Spectrum Auction Bill,” the bill’s main intent appears to be to prohibit involuntary pressures on broadcasters to give up their spectrum. However, those involuntary pressures are not stated in the legislation. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-VA, chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee, and its ranking member, Cliff Stearns, R-FL, introduced the bill on Capitol Hill last week.

The legislation, if passed, would allow the FCC to conduct voluntary incentive auctions, in which auction proceeds are shared with the former licensees of the spectrum being auctioned. It gives the commission the discretion to determine the amount or percentage of auction proceeds that will be given to a licensee that voluntarily relinquishes its spectrum.

It directs the FCC to establish rules to implement the voluntary incentive auction revenue sharing plan not later than one year after the date of enactment of the legislation. It also prohibits the FCC from reclaiming the licenses of broadcast television licensees or any other licensees directly or indirectly on an involuntary basis for the purpose of conducting an incentive auction.

It appeared that the Boucher/Stearns bill was introduced to counter other legislation introduced last week by Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, and Olympia Snowe, R-ME, that would levy a spectrum tax set by the FCC on broadcasters who do not give up their spectrum. However, that legislation was not mentioned in the Boucher/Stearns bill and there is no mention of the proposed tax.

In fact, the three-page Boucher/Stearns bill doesn’t spell out what constitutes involuntary pressure at all. With the continuing poor economy, the disruptive intrusion of the Internet on the traditional television business and the continuing threat of the repeal of must-carry rights, many broadcast stations owners are considering whether it’s the right time to sell. If a new tax on retained spectrum passes Congress, it would add to that mix of considerations.

The NAB, the broadcasters’ chief lobbyist, praised the bill. “NAB salutes chairman Boucher and ranking member Stearns for their vision on an issue of vital importance to tens of millions of Americans who rely on local TV stations for high-quality entertainment, niche programming and lifeline emergency news and information,” said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.