Walden Releases Spectrum Auction Bill

House Republicans, led by Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) Tuesday introduced their version of an incentive auction bill. It is scheduled to be marked up and voted on in the committee Thursday (Dec. 1).

The bill authorizes the FCC to reclaim spectrum from broadcasters for re-auction and compensate them from the proceeds. It also sets aside money to compensate broadcasters who elect not to give up spectrum for the costs of moving to another channel or sharing channels with another broadcaster, as well as the cost to cable operators of picking up those new signals.

The bill allocates spectrum for an interoperable broadband public safety network, rather than auction it as Walden preferred, but he said in a release announcing the Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum, or JOBS, Act that nobody got everything they wanted in the legislation. That also aligns the bill more closely with the Senate version that has already passed out of the Commerce Committee there.

After compensating broadcasters, paying for their move, and setting aside money for operating the public safety network, the bill anticipates having $15 billion left over for deficit reduction.

"Following nearly a year of hearings, meetings, and negotiations, I am disappointed that we could not develop a bipartisan bill. But for the sake of the economy and public safety, we need to take the best ideas, which are represented in the JOBS Act, and move forward with a subcommittee vote on Thursday," said Walden in announcing the bill's introduction. "No party, special interest, or lobby gets everything they want in this legislation. But for the American people, it delivers on three important goals for the country: job creation, a nationwide public safety network and deficit reduction."

Ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) was disappointed in the lack of bipartisanship as well. "Republicans regrettably ceased negotiations with us Oct. 4, just as the discussions started to get serious and significant progress looked possible," he said in an e-mailed statement to B&C. "Despite our repeated requests, they never resumed negotiations. Spectrum legislation should be bipartisan and we hope Chairmen Walden and Upton will return to the bargaining table."

The bill requires the FCC to "make all reasonable efforts to preserve...the coverage area and population served of each broadcast television licensee," something broadcasters had been pushing for.

Broadcasters who do remain behind will be allowed to use some of their spectrum for nonbroadcast uses in lieu of compensation from the auction so long as they deliver at least one free broadcast stream. Some broadcasters have argued that they could help relieve wireless congestion -- the principal argument the FCC has made for reclaiming the broadcast spectrum -- by using some of their one-to-many spectrum to offload wireless traffic at peak times.

As expected, the bill does not allow the FCC to force broadcasters who remain from trading a UHF channel for a VHF channel, the latter which is not as effective for delivery of DTV.

A National Association of Broadcasters spokesperson was not immediately available to comment on the new bill.

"Chairman Walden's bill represents a major step forward in ensuring that local television stations will continue to be able to serve our vast and diverse audiences with local news, entertainment, sports and emergency weather information," said NAB president Gordon Smith. "Our position remains unchanged since this debate began: NAB has no quarrel with voluntary spectrum auctions so long as non-volunteer broadcasters and our viewers are not punished."

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.