Hammering out the differences into the wee hours of Thursday morning, a bipartisan, bicameral congressional committee took the historic first step toward unleashing more wireless spectrum to feed an increasingly hungry mobile marketplace.
The bill, which authorizes the Federal Communications Commission to auction off spectrum voluntarily relinquished by broadcasters, will likely be passed Friday by Congress as part of a broader package to extend the payroll tax and unemployment benefits through the rest of the year. President Obama has said he would sign it as soon as it reaches his desk.
Passing spectrum legislation has been a long time in coming. Negotiations between GOP and Dems over the details stalled several times last year, giving varied business interests—including broadcasters, wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon, and the public safety community—plenty of time to lobby.
“We found a good balance,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), whose Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum (JOBS Act) formed the basis of the spectrum legislation that is included in the payroll tax package.
Though the conferees have yet to sign off on the final language, Walden was optimistic about its prospects. “I’m not happy with every provision, so the other side must be happy," he said. "There should be broad acceptance.”
Broadcasters worried early in the debate that they might be forced to give up spectrum. But, thanks to Walden, a former broadcaster, they pretty much got everything they wanted. The bill takes care of broadcasters that choose to hold onto spectrum, making sure the FCC makes every effort to preserve TV station coverage areas and population reach. No station will be forced to move to VHF, an undesirable band that limits reach. To help broadcasters relocate, $1.75 billion is set aside in the bill to cover costs.
“Special thanks go to Chairmen Rep. [Fred] Upton (R-Mich.) and Walden for steering this bill to conclusion, and to Reps. [John] Dingell (D-Mich.) and [Brian] Bilbray (R-Calif.) for a critically important amendment guaranteeing continued viewer access to TV station signals along the Canadian and Mexican borders,” said Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters.
In addition to authorizing the FCC to conduct spectrum auctions, the bill sets aside spectrum to create a nationwide public safety network for police, fire and EMS, one of the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission. The bill also sets aside money to establish a “next generation 9-11” network system and gives the FCC authority to designate some spectrum for unlicensed use.
The payroll tax extension package passed Congress Friday, 293-132 in the House and squeeked by in the Senate, 60-36. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill.