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House GOP Spectrum Draft Bill Would Protect Identities of Exiting Broadcasters

A discussion draft of a new spectrum auction bill from House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore., a former broadcaster) does not prevent the FCC from compelling broadcasters to move from a UHF to a VHF channel assignment -- though it would require compensation -- and requires the FCC only to make "reasonable efforts" to preserve their existing coverage areas.

That is according to a summary of the draft in a Majority staff memo circulated in advance of Friday's (July 15) hearing on spectrum incentive auctions and the creation of a broadband emergency communications network.

In that regard, the bill is similar to one already passed in the Senate Commerce Committee. Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Gene Green (D-Tex.) have introduced a bill that would provide stronger protections for broadcasters.

The draft, which the majority says incorporated input from ranking minority members of the committee as well as the FCC, keeps the identities of the broadcasters volunteering to give up some or all of their spectrum until they exit their spectrum to protect their ongoing business.

The draft authorizes an "unspecified amount" of the auction proceeds to go toward "construction" of a public safety network on the 24 MHz of spectrum cleared in 2005 DTV transition legislation, but the summary does not say whether it auctions or allocates that spectrum, though Walden and other Republicans have argued it should be auctioned per that 2005 legislation's mandate and staffers in the memo said that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski remains supportive of an auction.

That has become something of a bone of contention, with Rockefeller telling reporters at one point that the FCC was solidly behind allocation, as his bill would support. The FCC recommended auctioning it in the National Broadband Plan, but the president has come out in favor of allocation and Genachowski has said that he will support whatever gets the network completed in a timely fashion and funded for ongoing operations.

An FCC official told B&C in late May, following Rockefeller's statement, that the chairman "has indicated" he supports an auction, but that he also supports freeing up more spectrum and the incentive auction for broadcasters that will help do that, which are part of the Rockefeller bill package that also included allocation. It is that package the FCC can get behind given the key goal of getting the interoperable network built and funded, the source indicated.

The majority staff makes it clearing the memo that the draft is just that, and not set in stone.

Also being discussed is an incentive auction bill left over from the last Congress, H.R. 3019, the Spectrum Relocation Improvement Act, that deals with the best way to clear government spectrum. It requires public disclosure of a detailed government relocation plan and requires relocating government entities to share spectrum with commercial licensees as much as possible and move off the spectrum by a date certain unless there are extenuating circumstances.

"NAB is grateful for the leadership of Chairmen Upton and Walden, who have demonstrated time and again a recognition of the unique and positive role played by free and local television stations in communities across America," said National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith in a statement. "Under their proposed draft legislation to provide truly voluntary spectrum auctions, the clear intent of Congress would be to protect tens of millions of viewers relying exclusively on broadcast television against loss of service. NAB will work in a bipartisan basis with them and other lawmakers as Congress continues to debate incentive auction proposals."