Congress Approves Spectrum Incentive Auctions

Congress moved swiftly Friday to pass compromise
payroll tax break/unemployment benefit legislation that gives the FCC the
ability to reclaim and auction broadcast spectrum. The legislation will also
create a second DTV transition as the FCC moves and repacks the TV stations to
prepare the spectrum for auction.

bill passed the House 293 to 132; it passed in the Senate 60-36.

in the House came after numerous shout-outs for the incentive auction package
from its House Energy & Commerce Committee backers. The Senate moved to a
vote almost immediately after the House vote, and without debate.

Democrats in the House voted against the bill because of the requirement that
future federal civilian employees help pay for unemployment benefit extension
with a boost to pension contributions. The spectrum auction proceeds -- projected
at $15 billion -- are the other "payfor" for those unemployment
benefits. Former Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas)
said he voted against it because there had not been enough time to vet it,
which violated the Republican pledge not to pass bills that had been introduced
with insufficient time for study.

Communications Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), whose House version of auction
legislation provided the basis of the bill, said the legislation would free up
hundreds of thousands of jobs and allow for the build out of advanced wireless
and an emergency broadband communications network.

emphasized that the auction was voluntary and would protect broadcasters and
their viewers -- bill language requires the FCC to make best efforts to protect
the coverage areas and interference protections of the broadcasters who don't
give up spectrum.

Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Communications Subcommittee, said
the incentive auction legislation would usher in  more competition and
innovation and insure world-leading wireless infrastructure and use of TV band
spectrum for unlicensed wireless.

the FCC is expected to move quickly to come up with auction rules, it will
still likely be several years before any spectrum is reclaimed or repacked. The
bill sets a 10-year deadline for the auctions--one, a reverse auction, to
compensate the broadcasters who give up spectrum, the other to auction that
spectrum on the open market. But Blair Levin, architect of the FCC National
Broadband Plan that proposed the auctions, said it could happen as swiftly as
four or five years.

is concerned that bill provides too much direction, and too little flexibility
for the FCC to use its auction expertise. He would have preferred simply giving
the FCC the authority to compensate broadcasters, which it currently lacks, and
let the commission fill in the rest, particularly given the difficulty in
predicting changes in technology that could affect a spectrum auction.

have said that they are OK with the auctions so long as they are voluntary and
leave a viable service for those who choose to stay in the business.

John Eggerton

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.