House Draft Spectrum Bill Would Auction D-Block, Conflicts with Senate Bill; House Democrats Respond with Separate Discussion Draft

By Marc Martin and Marty Stern

In advance of tomorrow’s hearing on spectrum allocation and public safety, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), Chairman of  the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology released a discussion draft of legislation that would auction off the 700 MHz band D Block spectrum to commercial bidders. The commercial auction provision puts the  Republican draft at odds with S. 911, passed by the Senate Commerce Committee, and championed by Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), which would allocate, without auction, the D Block spectrum for the creation of the public safety broadband network. The House bill would also allow the auctioning of “white space” spectrum between television channels, which the FCC  has opened  up for unlicensed use. The draft would also prohibit the FCC from imposing a spectrum cap on bidders, meaning the largest carriers could participate in the auction.

The House draft authorizes the FCC to conduct a single round of voluntary “incentive auctions” for television broadcast spectrum. While the auctions remain voluntary, nothing in the legislation prevents the FCC from forcing broadcasters to move from a UHF to a VHF channel in order to free up additional spectrum. The legislation would require that the FCC keep the identities of any broadcasters volunteering to cede their spectrum confidential in order to protect existing business. Broadcasters would also be permitted to ask the FCC for the waiver of a Commission rule in exchange for  forgoing a percentage of the auction proceeds. In a provision that has already been roundly criticized by public interest groups, the draft  bill would allow successful incentive auction bidders to remain exempt from certain transparency rules imposed by the FCC's 2010 Net Neutrality Order

House Democrats, led by ranking Energy and Commerce Committee member Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) and Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA), responded to the Walden bill with their own discussion draft, which would continue to allocate the D Block for public safety use and prohibit the FCC from relocating broadcasters from UHF to VHF channels. Reports indicate that negotiations between the parties continue with the hopes of ultimately producing a bipartisan proposal.

The conflict between the House and Senate bills and among the parties may complicate Sen. Rockefeller’s hopes to pass the spectrum legislation by the ten-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks.  That said, the possibility nonetheless remains that any resulting compromise legislation, which in all cases will raise significant auction revenue, may get fast-tracked as part of legislation resolving the debt ceiling impasse.

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