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Boucher, Stearns Introduce Voluntary Spectrum Auction Bill

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) wants to put a capital (and "Capitol") V in "voluntary" when it comes to spectrum incentive auctions.

Boucher, chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee, has teamed with ranking member Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) to introduce a bill that would make sure that if the government reclaims broadcasters' spectrum for auction and re-use it for wireless broadband, it can only do so from broadcasters who give it up voluntarily, and not ones who are coerced either directly or indirectly.

Boucher has long championed only auctions that give broadcasters the legitimate option of saying "no thanks" to the government's offer, while acknowledging he believes there is a spectrum crisis that a truly voluntary process might help alleviate.

Bills have already been introduced that would allow for incentive auctions--Congress has to authorize the FCC to share proceeds with broadcasters. But this is the first to put protecting broadcasters' options front and center.

The Voluntary Incentive Auctions Act of 2010 would allow the FCC to conduct the auction and determine what cut broadcasters would get of the proceeds, but would prohibit it "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."

The three-page bill does not spell out what indirect means are prohibited. Broadcasters are concerned that current incentive auction legislation proposed by Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) would also levy a spectrum fee on broadcasters who retain their spectrum.

Broadcasters argue that would be a thumb on the scale for clearing broadcasters from the band.

The National Association of Broadcasters 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 in a statement. "[W]e have no quarrel with incentive auctions that are truly voluntary, and the Boucher/Stearns bill is a clear step in the right direction."

Another step would be getting rid of spectrum fees in any auction bill, which Wharton said the NAB has made clear it has problems with.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.