Key Communications Provisions Make it On Omnibus Bill

Legislation to reauthorize the FCC, boost mobile broadband and provide additional funds, as needed, for broadcasters' moves to new spectrum in the post-incentive auction repack has been included in the must-pass omnibus spending bill scheduled for a vote this week, which must pass by Friday to avoid another government shutdown.

The RAY BAUM Act (which incorporated Sen. John Thune's MOBILE NOW Act) that made it onto the bill differs slightly from the one that passed the House earlier this month, according to a Hill source.

Those changes are:

Language was added from the Senate-passed version of the MOBILE NOW Act to "streamline broadband infrastructure siting on federal lands and accelerate the availability of funds from the Spectrum Relocation Fund to clear spectrum sooner." The MOBILE NOW Act makes sure that the FCC makes mid-band spectrum available for commercial use by 2020. It both promotes making more next-gen 5G wireless spectrum available and reduce obstacles to building out networks.

Another change is language that "clarifies" the incentive auction shortfall funding (which only triggers if, as the FCC expects, the $1.75 billion auction repack fund runs out of funds before broadcasters run out of moving expenses, and "removes a requirement regarding the submission of certain FCC budget estimates and other documents to Congress."

The broadcaster shortfall funding in the bill breaks down this way, according to the National Association of Broadcasters: $600 million more will be available for the repack fund in FY 2018, with up to $350 million for full-power stations, up to $150 million for low-power TV stations and translators, up to $50 million for radio and $50 million for consumer education. There will be an added $400 million in for FY 2019."

“NAB welcomes the omnibus appropriations bill’s inclusion of RAY BAUM'S Act along with funding that fully and fairly reimburses broadcasters for their spectrum repack relocation expenses," said NAB. "We urge immediate passage of this omnibus legislation and look forward to a repack process that holds harmless TV broadcasters, local radio stations and the tens of millions of Americans who rely on our services every day."

The FCC will be reauthorized for the first time in 28 years

The bill includes $7.5 million for the National Telecommunications & Information Administration "to coordinate broadband mapping across the Federal government," with NTIA taking the lead, according to Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee. The FCC has been doing the broadband mapping since NTIA ran out of money in 2015.

“I’m also incredibly proud to see inclusion of the RAY BAUM’S Act, legislation named after my dear friend and former Energy and Commerce staff director," said Walden.

Also in the omnibus bill is $600 million for rural broadband via a pilot program administered by the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS), according to NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association. President Donald Trump has said that rural broadband deployment is a priority. “We are excited by the promise of the resources provided within the omnibus and the prospect of continuing our members’ work with RUS," said NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield.

One bill provision that is key to freeing up more spectrum is a "fix" allowing the FCC "to deposit upfront payments from spectrum bidders directly with the U.S. Treasury," without which the FCC would be unable to conduct future spectrum auctions.

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.