Spectrum Legislation Passes House

Part of larger bill, spectrum faces uncertain future in Senate

Legislation that would free up more spectrum for wireless services and public safety passed the House Tuesday as part of a massive 360-page year-end GOP payroll tax cut extensions bill.

The 234-193 vote was split largely along party lines because Democrats were opposed to the extra provisions that the GOP tacked onto the bill called the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act. The spectrum provision, the Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum Actor JOBS Act, was along for the ride.

Voted out of the House Communications & Technology Subcommittee early this month, the JOBS Act's best hope for passage by the end of the year was to be part of a package of measures led by the payroll tax reduction, a provision both parties wanted. The JOBS Act also has the added attraction of addressing the deficit by raising $15 billion through spectrum auctions held by the Federal Communications Commission.

The JOBS Act requires the Federal Communications Commission to hold incentive auctions of spectrum voluntarily relinquished by broadcasters within three years. It would also allocate a portion of spectrum for public safety, setting aside $5-6.5 billion to fund interoperable public safety networks across the country. For broadcasters, the JOBS Act contains protections for TV stations that choose to stay in business and sets aside as much as $3 billion for stations that are forced to move to another frequency.

But if the debate on the House floor was any indication, both the JOBS Act and the bigger act it is a part of, has no future in the Democratic-controlled Senate where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. declared it "dead on arrival."

Despite Democrat opposition to the House GOP payroll tax extension bill, both parties agree that a spectrum reallocation legislation is important to meet a looming wireless spectrum crunch and create a public safety network as called for by the 911 Commission. Democrats favor the Senate spectrum bill over the House bill, which had little Democratic support, but Commerce Committee members in both chambers have been holding discussions to try and work out the differences between the versions.

The FCC, which has been pushing its National Broadband Plan calling for spectrum auctions, hailed the House passage of the spectrum provision a "major achievement." But FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski also sided with Democrats that wanted to give the FCC more flexibility in conducting the auctions and that would promote unlicensed spectrum.

"Several provisions of the House bill would tie the agency’s hands in ways that could be counterproductive, reducing economic value and hindering innovation and investment.  One important example is the legislation’s seeming limitation on the Commission’s ability to accommodate new technologies, including those that use unlicensed spectrum, like super WiFi or machine-to-machine Internet connected devices," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement.