Rockefeller Bill Takes Forced Spectrum Reclamation Off Table

According to a copy of the draft of a spectrum incentive auction bill being worked on by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) they are trying to provide protections to broadcasters, but it still recognizes that the FCC may have to move and "repack" some broadcasters involuntarily as it aggregates broadcast spectrum to sell to wireless broadband providers.

The bill is meant to help free up spectrum for a national, interoperable broadband communications network, which is its focus. To pay for that network, it authorizes the FCC to pay broadcasters to move off some of their spectrum so that the FCC can auction it use some of those proceeds to pay for creation and maintenance of the network.

It also pays for costs of relocating broadcasters who remain, and for cable operators having to accommodate those moves.

The FCC has the authority to force broadcasters off the spectrum if it finds that would be in the public interest, various FCC officials speaking on background have said during the debate over spectrum reclamation. But the bill makes clear that the only way the FCC can get its incentive auction authority under the bill is to make the reclamation voluntary.

"The Commission may not reclaim spectrum licensed on a primary basis to a television broadcast station or other licensees, directly or indirectly, on an involuntary basis for purposes of providing spectrum to carry out an incentive auction under this subparagraph," the draft reads.

But the bill also says the FCC can force broadcasters who chose not to give up spectrum off their specific spectrum allocation, so long as it "allocates an identical amount of contiguous spectrum, located between channels 14 and 50, inclusive, in the same geographic market, to the television broadcast station licensee."

The bill anticipates the FCC will be repacking stations, which means concentrating the remaining stations on their reduced spectrum holdings so that 20 MHz blocks can be freed up for wireless broadband.

Broadcasters are concerned that repacking could result in diminished coverage, decreased signal quality and insufficient spectrum to be completive in the digital future. The bill attempts to address some of those concerns.

It says broadcasters cannot be required to share channels during that repacking process; that the FCC must preserve, to the degree possible, stations' coverage areas during that process; that they--and cable operators--will be compensated for moving expenses and that stations returning some of their spectrum will still retain all of their must-carry rights. It also suggests the FCC allow stations on channels 2-6 to relocate to the UHF band.

The bill budgets $12.5 billion for the emergency network, which includes $500 million for research into the use of wireless broadband for first responders.

There is still no hard estimate of how much broadcasters will receive, but with a predicted $28 billion, $12.5 billion for the emergency network, and the bill's anticipation of $10 billion to deficit reduction, that would leave about $5.5 billion for the planned 120 MHz the FCC is targeting from broadcasters.

The bill also requires the FCC and National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which oversees government use of spectrum, to conduct an inventory, something broadcasters have been pushing for.

Rockefeller wants to mark up the bill by the end of this month and get a law on the books before the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Creating the interoperable emergency network was one of the 9/11 commission's recommendations.

Rockefeller is planning a May 17 press conference to press for passage. That comes after a conference call with reporters last week for the same purpose. The Commerce Committee has slated an executive committee meeting for May 25, where it is expected to mark up the bill, which means proposing amendments, if any, and voting it out of committee.

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.