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Senate Commerce Committee Passes Broadcaster Incentive Auction Bill

With promises to continue to tweak the bill, the Senate Commerce Committee voted 21 to 4 Wednesday to authorize incentive auctions that would compensate broadcasters for giving up spectrum for wireless broadband as part of a larger effort to fund an emergency communications network.

According to a committee source, voting against the bill were Republican Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Me.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).; Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla,).

The legislation would also compensate broadcasters who retain their spectrum but are "repacked" to make larger, contiguous swaths of vacated spectrum available for wireless, and would compensate cable operators for any adjustments they had to make to their retransmissions of the reconfigured broadcasters.

"This bill marries smart spectrum policy with good public policy.  It is a bipartisan, commonsense bill that will give our first responders the tools they need to do their jobs," said Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) who has made passage of this bill in the shadow of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 his top legislative priority.

The bill, appropriately numbered S. 911, is primarily about creating an interoperable broadband network for first responders, which would be paid for out of the proceeds of the re-auction of that reclaimed broadcast spectrum for wireless. It allocates the D block of spectrum, reclaimed from broadcasters in the DTV transition, to that public safety network rather than auctioning the spectrum for a public-private partnership.

Speaking out for broadcasters' interests during the markup hearing was Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

He said he would have preferred the bill have language that required the FCC to replicate the coverage area of any TV stations "repacked" in the spectrum reclamation process, something broadcasters have been pushing hard for. He said that making it harder for people to see what may be the only TV they have -- a new study says 46 million viewers still rely on over-the-air TV -- was not the right direction to be heading in. He said he wanted to make sure the FCC was cognizant of that concern and incorporated it into repacking.

The bill was amended to make it clear that the so-called white spaces of unused spectrum in the broadcast band would still be available nationally and in each market after the FCC repacks the spectrum. That amendment was courtesy of Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

"We are pleased that the Senate Commerce Committee today chose to once again recognize the importance of the 'white spaces' to the technological innovation of the country as part of the legislation (S. 911) allocating spectrum for public safety," said Public Knowledge, a big backer of the FCC's white spaces order.

Broadcasters have been concerned that those unlicensed devices could cause interference to TV stations in the band.

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 helped prod the Senate to come together on a bipartisan bill to create that network, which was one of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. Rockefeller praised the bipartisan work of ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) in helping him achieve bipartisan backing for the bill.

But not everyone was singing its praises.

Expressing the strongest reservations about the bill was Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who said he feared the creation of a new board the bill would create to oversee allocation and build-out of the public safety network was made up of cabinet members and administration appointees and would be a centralized bureaucracy that would produce a second rate system compared to private industry.

He favored auctioning the spectrum and said that would both reduce the deficit and leverage that marketplace expertise. The bill, he said, would compel first responders to comply with more federal regs to get access to the net, and it was naive to think it would be otherwise.

Sen Frank Lautenberg (D- NJ) said he was concerned about the deficit, but did not want that to be an excuse for not giving first responders the tools they need. He said he wished that there were families of 9/11 victims and the hearing or they had scrolled some of the pictures of the dead while they debated whether there was enough money or too many regulations associated with it.

The bill must now pass the full Senate and move to the Republican-controlled House, where leaders in the Energy & Commerce Committee continue to prefer the D block spectrum be auctioned rather than allocated. There is a also a separate House Bill, H.R. 607, the Broadband for First Responders Act of 2011, which would also reallocate the D block.

"We applaud Chairman Rockefeller, Ranking Member Hutchison, and members of the Senate Commerce Committee for advancing a comprehensive approach to spectrum policy that encourages greater spectrum efficiency, meets the broadband needs of public safety personnel, and preserves Commission flexibility with respect to auction design," said National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Michael Powell. "We especially appreciate the committee's effort to craft a fair framework for reclaiming broadcast spectrum through incentive auctions that will cover costs incurred by cable operators due to channel sharing or repacking and will not expand or extend current carriage obligations. We look forward to working with the Committee and with Congress as this important legislation is considered in the Senate."

National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith, a former senator from Oregon, praised the leadership but signaled there was more work to do on the bill. "NAB appreciates the hard work of Chairman Rockefeller and ranking member Hutchison in shepherding through today's legislation. As the process moves forward, NAB will work with policymakers to help ensure that broadcasters are able to deliver on the promise of free and local digital television made to tens of millions of viewers."

CTIA: The Wireless Association, which has been pushing the FCC to get spectrum back from broadcasters, was understandably pleased by the bill's progress.

"CTIA congratulates Chairman Rockefeller for moving his bill forward," said CTIA CEO Steve Largent. "We greatly appreciate the focus the bill places on authorizing incentive auctions and making additional spectrum available for commercial wireless providers. Making additional spectrum available is critical to ensuring that the wireless industry can continue to meet the exploding demand for wireless broadband services and remain a catalyst for economic growth."