New Bill Aims to Close Crunch in Spectrum Auction

Bill would require FCC to bundle federal and TV spectrum

It's finally beginning to sink in in Washington that the pending auction of spectrum voluntarily relinquished by TV broadcasters may hardly make a dent in the looming shortage of wireless spectrum. What's equally troubling is that the auctions, which Congress legislated must be conducted by the Federal Communications Commission in the next 10 years, may not generate enough cash to incentivize broadcasters to give up spectrum and thus yield little for the federal Treasury.

Hoping to take up the slack, House Energy & Commerce members Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) today introduced a bill (the Efficient Use of Government Spectrum Act) that would require the FCC to run a bigger auction by bundling broadcast spectrum with spectrum from the federal government used by the Department of Defense and other federal agencies.

The legislation was introduced one day after Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, and ranking member Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) launched a bipartisan federal spectrum working group to examine how the federal government can use the nation's airwaves more efficiently.

Since the National Broadband Plan was accepted two years ago as the road map for the administration's policy on meeting consumers' growing demand for spectrum, the plan was that broadcasters would fork over 120 megahertz of the 500 total called for in the plan.

But now that Congress has authorized the FCC to hold the auction, it seems less likely that it will have 120 megahertz from broadcasters for auction, despite a valiant pitch from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski at last week's National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas attended by all three commissioners.

"I'm less optimistic [the auction] will yield as much spectrum as most think," FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell said during an NAB panel. 

By bringing in additional spectrum from the federal government, the spectrum could be a richer enterprise, Stearns and Matsui said. Stearns, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, added that the addition of spectrum to the market would raise $12 billion, "most of which will go to the U.S. Treasury."

Thrilled with any new spectrum that could come its way, the wireless industry was quick to issue a statement of support. "We hope that this and other bands currently occupied but often underutilized by federal users will be made available for commercial use as expeditiously as possible," said Jot Carpenter, vp of government affairs for CTIA – The Wireless Association.