Despite earlier opposition to a proposed voluntary auction of broadcast spectrum, a discussion draft of a new Republican-backed bill marked up this morning in the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee aims to “advance wireless broadband service, spur billions of dollars in private investment, create thousands of jobs, help bring interoperable broadband communications to public safety officials and reduce the deficit by approximately $15 billion,” according to its sponsor, Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.).

In his opening remarks addressing the “Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum (JOBS) Act of 2011,” the congressman noted, “Think what the advent of wireless broadband has meant to our country, our culture, and our economy. The JOBS Act takes all of that innovation to a new level and creates real private-sector jobs. And in the process, the companies who want this spectrum will pay the taxpayers for it, generating upwards of $15 billion toward paying down the deficit and finally meeting the needs of our valued public safety officials by building them their own nationally interoperable public safety broadband network.”

He continued, “The JOBS Act does all of these things and more. For the nation’s free, over-the-air broadcasters who just went through an expensive and difficult federally mandated conversion to digital, the JOBS Act provides their viewers the best protection of any competing legislation to make sure Americans can continue to watch their favorite shows and get their news even if their stations shift frequencies.”

Added Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the full Energy & Commerce Committee, “The JOBS Act also responds to the needs of public safety – it reallocates the D block to give public safety the 20 megahertz of contiguous spectrum they have consistently requested along with a governance model and funding to help make an interoperable public-safety broadband network a reality.”

If this bill gets passed by the full House and then makes it through the Senate to eventually end up on the president’s desk for a signature, that public-safety spectrum also comes with as much as $6.5 billion earmarked for such a build-out.

On the Senate side, the Strengthening Public-safety and Enhancing Communications Through Reform, Utilization, and Modernization Act (the SPECTRUM Act or S.911) was introduced last May but has seen no action since June. That bill, in part, asks for enough wireless spectrum and resources to build the same kind of nationwide public-safety network. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), ranking member of that body’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, said of today’s House action, "I’m very glad that the House Energy & Commerce Committee is placing a priority on providing our nation’s first responders with the spectrum they need to build a robust nationwide public safety wireless network.”

She went on, “While there are some differences between our bills, I believe the House’s JOBS Act is complimentary to the bipartisan bill Chairman Rockefeller and I have passed in the Senate Commerce Committee, S.911. I look forward to working with my House colleagues to incorporate their priorities into S.911 so we can send a final spectrum bill to the president’s desk sometime this winter."

Industry Reactions

The National Association of Broadcasters wasted no time lauding the House mark-up, but with caveats. According to President/CEO Gordon Smith, "Chairman Walden’s bill represents a major step forward in ensuring that local television stations will continue to be able to serve our vast and diverse audiences with local news, entertainment, sports and emergency weather information. Our position remains unchanged since this debate began: NAB has no quarrel with voluntary spectrum auctions so long as non-volunteer broadcasters and our viewers are not punished."

Consumer Electronics Association President/CEO Gary Shapiro reiterated his support of voluntary auctions, commenting,  “Incentive spectrum auctions are entirely voluntary, would help spur economic growth and job creation, and would help address our nation’s looming spectrum crunch. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans now rely on over-the-air spectrum to watch TV, while the exploding use of wireless devices has made the need for more spectrum increasingly dire. As the holiday shopping season has kicked off, in which consumer electronics account for half of all purchases, spectrum-hungry tablets and smartphones have been among the most popular products. These hot products underscore the need for more spectrum.”

Steve Largent, president/CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association (which has been running radio ads in Washington, D.C., for the past few months in favor of more spectrum for commercial usage), urges Congress to get on with passage of a spectrum bill by year’s end, saying, “This bill takes the important step of authorizing voluntary incentive auctions, which will make a substantial down payment toward solving the looming spectrum crisis. The facts prove that more spectrum for the U.S. wireless industry will have a significantly positive impact as our members continue to invest, innovate and lead the world. Our members want to spend money for this valuable and finite resource so we can continue to create jobs and boost our nation’s economy.”

What was missing here was any reaction from Sinclair Broadcast Group, which a month ago said incentive auctions would “disenfranchise millions of Americans, seriously damage local TV and raise meager revenues for the U.S. budget deficit.”

Instead, the group wants Congress to “pass legislation mandating a thorough spectrum audit and formulate a national spectrum policy before it proceeds with any auction considerations.” It offered the following concerns:

>> All nine of Detroit’s local TV stations would likely go off the air under the proposal to auction 40 percent of broadcaster spectrum, between 50 percent and 100 percent of the TV stations in 22 cities would be left without a new channel assignment, and as many as 131 stations nationwide would be forced off the air.

>> TV stations located 224 miles south of the Canadian border cannot be reassigned channels without violating U.S.-Canada treaty.

>> The entire block of 108 megahertz of spectrum returned to the government by broadcasters during the 2009 DTV transition went unsold and now lies fallow. Officials at Verizon, Sprint and elsewhere acknowledge there is no spectrum shortage, as claimed by auction proponents. An independent analysis conducted by Citigroup found wireless companies are using only 192 megahertz of the 838 megahertz available to the industry.

>> Nearly 1,500 megahertz of spectrum has been identified by the U.S. Department of Commerce that may be available for reassignment, including 115 megahertz that could be used for wireless broadband.

>> According to the Congressional Budget Office, a spectrum auction would raise a meager $6.5 billion for the U.S. Treasury to offset a $1.5 trillion budget deficit (representing 0.4 percent of the deficit).

-Debra Baker

The Daily


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