Walden: Unlicensed Is Important, But FCC Should Not Give Away Billions

As the conferees get down to the short strokes on a compromise payroll tax break extension package, the issue of unlicensed wireless is heating up.

That is because a House Communications-passed version of incentive auction legislation being considered as part of that package, the so-called JOBS Act, would not give the FCC free reign to carve out more of the reclaimed broadcasters' spectrum for unlicensed wireless.

There was plenty of response Thursday to a letter from 40-plus, mostly Democratic House members pushing for the FCC to have that flexibility, including a driving force behind that House version, Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who said he was for unlicensed spectrum too, but not for the FCC giving away spectrum. Part of the proceeds from the auction is going to help pay for tax breaks and benefit extensions.

"Unlicensed spectrum has an important role to play, and we have worked hard to find the right balance on a policy that protects taxpayers and promotes innovation," Walden told B&C/Multi in an e-mail. "There is currently more unlicensed spectrum than there is licensed spectrum for wireless broadband use. The JOBS Act not only preserves unlicensed spectrum, it creates more for future innovation. The JOBS Act simply says that the FCC cannot spend taxpayer funds to clear additional spectrum and then give away that billions of dollars' worth of spectrum. Taxpayers deserve a return on their investment."

But critics of the Republican-backed bill's limits on carving out more broadcast spectrum for unlicensed lined up to praise the letter and the legislators who signed it.

"It counteracts the dangerous notion that the FCC should ignore the tremendous economic benefits of unlicensed spectrum and sell off every last bit of this valuable resource to the highest bidders," said Free Press Action Fund Policy Director Matt Wood. "Congress must preserve the FCC's ability to make the public airwaves available to all members of the public - consumers, entrepreneurs, startups and incumbent wireless providers large and small - in any spectrum legislation it passes."

"Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and their colleagues have made a persuasive case for making certain that unlicensed spectrum is included in any larger spectrum agreements used to pay for the extension of payroll tax relief," said Public Knowledge legal Director Harold Feld. "As they point out, there is already plenty of spectrum available for auction for licensed uses in the TV bands, and that unlicensed spectrum is just what entrepreneurs and small businesses need to produce innovative devices and services that contribute billions to our nation's economy."

"The Wireless Innovation Alliance congratulates Representatives Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and their House colleagues on the compelling, substantive and bi-partisan letter in support of unlicensed spectrum sent today to House and Senate conferees working on the tax extender legislative package," the Wireless Innovation Alliance effused. "Their understanding of the critical role unlicensed spectrum plays in the innovation economy should be taken very seriously in consideration of including spectrum policy as part of payroll tax relief."

It was technically bipartisan (three Republicans joined 39 Democrats), but House Republicans have generally lined up in favor of limiting the FCC's ability to carve out more wireless or put auction conditions on potential bidders for spectrum.

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.