Key House GOP Leader Looking Out for Broadcasters in Spectrum Fight

Bill would protect those who don't give up spectrum

WASHINGTON—Broadcasters were breathing a sigh of relief Wednesday, at the conclusion of a House subcommittee hearing about reallocating some of the TV spectrum to meet the nation's wireless spectrum needs.

The hearing was led by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., himself a former broadcaster. He told reporters afterwards that he was ready to work on legislation, but that it would be legislation that would include protections for broadcasters.

"He's the right chairman," said more than one broadcast lobbyist in the hall outside the hearing room.

Though Walden wouldn't go into details, he said his bill would head down the path of authorizing the Federal Communications Commission to hold auctions of spectrum voluntarily relinquished by TV broadcasters. At the same time, the bill would also address a thorny problem that will inevitably crop up as a result of these auctions, as other broadcasters must be repositioned on the airwaves in order to make the auctioned spectrum usable for wireless, a process known as repacking.

All along broadcasters have said they would agree to voluntary auctions, but moving to a new spectrum position costs money, and could land a broadcaster in a less favorable position, leading to a reduced coverage area or increased interference. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., pointed out that shifting a station from UHF to the lower frequency VHF would "restrict geographic reach and impair a station's ability to transmit digital," a lesson learned during the painful DTV transition two years ago.

"You heard bipartisan support in the committee for making sure broadcasters can serve the coverage area they have today, and second, that you don't accidentally put in play a lot of interference," Walden said. "We want to work through all that."

If Walden can work through the issues, at least one broadcaster stands ready to offer some spectrum for auction. "Under certain circumstances, I am willing to sell, but the remaining stations must not be impaired," said Bert Ellis, president of Titan Broadcast, owner of 13 TV stations and one of two broadcasters to testify Wednesday. 

Walden is also unlikely to give the FCC free rein to conduct the auctions without strict guidelines. "They are not going to let the FCC run with an auction without supervision," said one lobbyist.

Walden declined to give a date for when he planned on introducing a bill, but it's clear that his legislation would be competing with the bill introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. Rockefeller's bill was originally scheduled for mark-up before Memorial Day, and now a new draft has been circulated.

Walden seems ready to make sure the House takes the lead on the issue.

"Let's see what they [the Senate Democrats] are able to get out of their committee and if they get Senate floor time," Walden said. "They obviously put a lot of work into their product. We have a different path."