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House Members Push Unlicensed Carve-Out

Forty-plus House members (39 Democrats, 3 Republicans) have sent a letter to the conferees on the payroll tax break extension package, asking that spectrum incentive auction legislation in the package allows the FCC to use some of spectrum reclaimed from that auction for unlicensed wireless.

A House Republican-backed version of that legislation, the JOBS Act, would not provide that flexibility, the argument being that would reduce the auction proceeds that are being used partly to pay for the tax break and benefit extensions in the package, and that if companies -- like Google or Yahoo! -- advocating for more spectrum for unlicensed use think that is its highest and best use, they can bid for it at auction.

Those Republicans also point to the amount of unlicensed spectrum already available."Unlicensed spectrum has an important role to play, and we have worked hard to find the right balance on a policy that protects taxpayers and promotes innovation," House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden told B&c in an e-mail. "There is currently more unlicensed spectrum than there is licensed spectrum for wireless broadband use. The JOBS Act [Walden was a major force behind the bill] not only preserves unlicensed spectrum, it creates more for future innovation. The JOBS Act simply says that the FCC cannot spend taxpayer funds to clear additional spectrum and then give away that billions of dollars worth of spectrum. Taxpayers deserve a return on their investment."

But the primarily Democratic correspondents to the conferees Thursday argued that to continue to have innovations like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the FCC needs to be free to free up spectrum in the "beachfront" band where TV stations reside.

"Spectrum policy must recognize that both licensed and unlicensed spectrum in the television band maximizes the economic benefits of wireless broadband," they wrote.

Cable operators support freeing up more unlicensed spectrum, while broadcasters are primarily concerned that the FCC look out for the integrity of the licensed broadcast spectrum that remains in the hands of those not choosing to give up spectrum for auction.

It is not clear whether the political divide over provisions in the legislation limiting the FCC's flexibility over unlicensed wireless, and its ability to put conditions on auction bidders, will prevent the spectrum legislation from being part of the compromise, which needs to be struck by the end of the month. But arguing for its remaining in the bill is the projected $16 billion-$20 billion the auctions would bring to the treasury, as well as the funding of an interoperable emergency broadband communications network still not built a decade after 9/11.

Among the signatories are House Communications Subcommittee members Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) -- the ranking member -- Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). Also on the list was Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).