Incentive Auction Amendment Proposed

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the new, junior senator from that state, has proposed an amendment to the Reid debt ceiling bill that would modify the incentive auction portion of the bill to make sure the FCC did not put too many conditions on winning wireless bidders and making it clear that freeing up spectrum for them is crucial.

Auctions, which would compensate broadcasters for exiting some or all of their spectrum, is part of the bill because they are also predicted to raise billions for deficit reduction.

Kirk's wireless industry-friendly amendment would prevent the FCC from attaching any network neutrality conditions to the auctioned spectrum, prevent it from prescribing rates, terms or service conditions that might be offered, would prevent the FCC from restricting the "number, type, pr specific bidders" from participating in an auction.

Some groups have argued that unless the FCC does that, the spectrum will be concentrated in the hands of the same major players.

The FCC is also prevented from doing any ex post facto imposition of requirements or conditions on bidders once the auction is over.

While broadcasters have been arguing that there should only be one auction, the bill talks in terms of an "initial auction" and "auctions" beginning no later than 2 years after enactment. It says the FCC should have the power to auction any spectrum at any time subject to the auction rules the amendment sets out.

Why? The amendment makes it clear: "Many spectrum holders do not efficiently use their frequency assignments, and a restructuring of the usable spectrum is a viable solution to make up for this lost opportunity."

And while broadcasters have argued that reclaiming all the spectrum the FCC wants could hurt the delivery of high-definition TV, the amendment suggests the opposite, saying increased spectrum for wireless will allow HDTV "to continue operating without network problems and interferences."

The Reid bill, which House Speaker John Boehner has said might pass the Senate, could get a vote Thursday or Friday as the country lurches toward its Aug. 2 debt limit deadline.

The National Association of Broadcasters was vetting the amendment at press time, but it was already not happy with the Reid bill's lack of protections for broadcast coverage areas and signal quality.

"NAB is deeply concerned about provisions currently in Senate Majority Leader Reid's legislation that would threaten the future of a great American institution, free and local television," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton Tuesday (July 26), before Kirk added the latest wrinkle. "We will work with him as the process moves forward in hopes that our issues can be addressed."

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.