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Senate, House Leaders Agree to Support Ray Baum Act

House and Senate leaders from both parties have agreed to support the Ray Baum Act (HR 4986), which in addition to reauthorizing the FCC is aimed at freeing up more money for the post-incentive auction repack.

The bill is scheduled to get a vote in the House March 6, where it is expected to pass. Then it moves to the Senate, where the same is expected.

House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), and Senate Commerce Committee chair John Thune (R-S.D.) and ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) announced they had struck the bipartisan, bicameral agreement.

The bill passed unanimously out of the Energy & Commerce Committee last month.

The new money for the repack will be freed up if and when the FCC certifies to the Treasury that the current $1.75 billion repack relocation fund will be insufficient, which the FCC has signaled is already the case, and certifies to Congress that the money is necessary to reimburse "reasonably incurred costs."

Related: FCC Reauthorization Bill Bulks Up

The bill establishes a new Broadcast Repack Fund that will cover full-power TV stations, as well as a Translator and Low-Power Station Relocation Fund; money for co-located radio stations affected by the TV station moves, the FM Broadcast Station Relocation Fund (currently only FM stations are covered); and the Broadcast Station Relocation Consumer Education Fund, money for driving awareness of the repack and the associated channel changes.

LPTVS, translators and radio stations were not included in the $1.75 billion fund, which Communications Subcommittee chair Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) had said was a mistake that the committee was now correcting.

The LPTV portion said that "the Commission shall reimburse costs reasonably incurred by a television translator station or low power television station on or after Jan. 1, 2017, in order for such station to relocate its television service from one channel to another channel or otherwise modify its facility..." But there won't be any payments for lost revenue.

Related: Praise for Ray Baum Bill

The bill also includes provisions in Sen. Thune's Mobile Now Act that were not in it when the legislation passed out of committee.

The bill's passage will not be the end of the story, however. The appropriation must still be made. Walden promised that he would go to the leadership and appropriators "up and down the food chain," to secure commitments for the added funds for the repack.

Pallone motormanned the added broadcaster funds as a way to make sure viewers would be held harmless as much as possible by the station moves.

Importantly, the bill also clears up an issue with the FCC's deposit of auction proceeds that could have held up any future spectrum auctions. That incorporates a fix proposed by Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.).

"This removes a critical hurdle the FCC identified, which prevents financial institutions from holding large sums from auction deposits put up by spectrum auction bidders," said Robert McDowell, chief public policy advisor of Mobile Future.

Specifically, the bill would:

“Reauthorize the FCC and include reforms to ensure the commission continues to improve its efficiency and transparency.

“Enact key provisions from the Senate-approved Mobile Now Act (S. 19) to boost the development of next-generation 5G wireless broadband by identifying more spectrum –- both licensed and unlicensed –- for private sector use and reducing the red tape associated with building wireless networks.

“Authorize a repack fund to address the shortfall in funding available to relocate broadcasters being displaced following the successful incentive auction, and set up new relocation funds for translators, low-power television, and radio stations that will be impacted by the repack -– supplemented by a consumer education fund.

“Include a spectrum auction deposit 'fix' which allows the FCC to deposit upfront payments from spectrum bidders directly with the U.S. Treasury.

“Direct the FCC to craft a national policy for unlicensed spectrum that includes certain specific considerations and recommendations.

“Advance proposals that would help the FCC and law enforcement protect consumers from fraudulent telephone calls, and to educate Americans about their options to stop these illegal calls.”

National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith said: "NAB applauds Chairmen Walden and Thune and Ranking Members Pallone and Nelson on reaching this agreement, a significant step towards fully reimbursing broadcaster ‘repack’ relocation expenses. We also appreciate the leadership of Senators [Jerry] Moran, [Brian] Schatz and their cosponsors whose Viewer and Listener Protection Act demonstrated bipartisan consensus to solve this critical issue.

"A truly voluntary incentive auction means tens of millions of Americans who rely on local TV and radio stations –- as well as low-power TV stations and translators –- are not unfairly burdened by the repack. America’s hometown broadcasters fully support swift passage of Ray Baum’s Act and remain optimistic that appropriators will include full repack relocation funding in the final omnibus spending bill.”

“Senators Thune and Nelson, and Representatives Walden and Pallone have demonstrated clear bipartisan leadership in reaching agreement on the House’s RAY BAUM’S Act and we look forward to its swift passage in both chambers," said CTIA President Meredith Attwell Baker. "The inclusion of MOBILE NOW and the auction deposits provisions will ensure the FCC has the necessary authority to hold spectrum auctions in 2018, which is vital to the US winning the global race to 5G. We are hopeful that this same bipartisan approach will deliver the spectrum pipeline and infrastructure reform we will need to lead the world in wireless.”

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.