Broadcasters Dodge Spectrum Auction in Debt Ceiling Deal

Proposal likely to resurface in September

Broadcasters appear to have dodged a bullet with Congress' deal to raise the debt ceiling. The pact has no provision for voluntary spectrum auctions, despite the appeal of such sales as a source of billions in revenue. But it was close.

The news came via a tweet from Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who tweeted that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had taken spectrum out of his bill: "Even Leader Reid had to dump bad spectrum policy from his bill. So won't be in House bill today, either." Spectrum was never a consideration in the bill version of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Reid's spectrum provision had sent broadcasters scrambling last week because the language in his bill did not include safeguards for those TV broadcasters that chose not to sell off any of their spectrum. The bill would have allowed the Federal Communications Commission to repack the spectrum at will, leaving broadcasters to worry that their current signal contours might be compromised. At the start of the week, the National Association of Broadcasters issued a study of the consequences of an auction without protections.   

In a statement released Monday, broadcasters breathed a sigh of relief. "We are pleased that the negotiated debt ceiling bill, to be considered by Congress, does not threaten free and local broadcasting," said Gordon Smith, president and CEO, National Association of Broadcasters. "NAB will continue working with lawmakers on incentive auction legislation that is truly voluntary. Our goal is to ensure that TV stations choosing not to go out of business will be held harmless, and that tens of millions of Americans who enjoy local news, entertainment, sports, and lifesaving weather warnings from broadcasters will not be penalized."

The idea of a spectrum auction is likely to gain traction once again after Labor Day, when lawmakers return from their August recess. An auction might involve giving away or selling off some portion of the spectrum for use by first responders, and that proposal has special emotional appeal given the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11.