Members of Congress have come to an agreement over how best to dole out highly coveted spectrum, inserting language into a larger economic package that would allow the FCC to auction off broadcast spectrum to wireless carriers.
As reported by The Hill, the auctions could produce up to $15 billion in revenue for the U.S. Treasury, which would be used to help pay for an extension of unemployment benefits.
The FCC has been pushing for voluntary broadcast spectrum auctions since at least 2010, when the agency delivered its national broadband plan to Congress. The option would allow TV broadcasters who are sitting on unused spectrum to auction it off to wireless carriers. A portion of the proceeds go to the broadcasters and the rest goes to the government.
While spectrum might seem like a rather boring topic to the average consumer, its availability could eventually have an impact on how well your mobile devices work. At this point, the wireless carriers have enough spectrum to keep their networks running, but they argue that with more and more people picking up smartphones and other data-hungry devices like tablets, that bandwidth is running low.
How do you fix that? More spectrum. But how does one get their hands on available spectrum? That’s the problem. The FCC has the authority to handle spectrum auctions, and has been doing so since the 1990s, but Congress has to authorize those auctions before the FCC gets started.
Earlier this month, there was concern about a portion of a bill that would strip the FCC of its authority to impose conditions on spectrum auctions. The FCC could run the auctions but it couldn’t ban anyone from making a purchase. Opponents of the provision argued that the move would result in companies like Verizon and AT&T snapping up everything, while smaller firms were left in the dust. Supporters – like AT&T – argued that the market could take care of itself.
This week’s compromise allows the FCC to “enforce rules of general applicability, including rules concerning spectrum aggregation that promote competition,” according to bill language posted online by Public Knowledge.
The measure would also set aside spectrum and funds for a public safety network for first responders, something that has been in the works for more than a decade. (For more, see 10 Years After 9/11, Where Is Our Public Safety Network?)
Reaction to the compromise was generally positive.
Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior vice president of external and legislative affairs, applauded Congress “for doing something truly important to our nation.”
“In particular, we are pleased that despite opposing voices, the legislation will not only free up more spectrum, but will finally provide public safety with the spectrum it needs to do its vital work,” Cicconi wrote in a blog post.
Sprint also issued its support. “While we didn’t see the need to amend the statute, the compromise language approved by the conferees preserves the FCC’s ability to promote competition as it conducts future wireless spectrum auctions,” said Vonya B. McCann, senior vice president for government affairs. “Supporting the final passage of this compromise legislation will help drive the expansion of high speed mobile broadband across the country thereby encouraging innovation, stimulating our economy and better meeting the needs of wireless consumers.”
Steve Largent, president and CEO of wireless industry trade association CTIA, said “this additional spectrum will help CTIA’s members meet Americans’ voracious appetite for mobile Internet anywhere and anytime.”
Gordon Smith, chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters, meanwhile, said “NAB salutes the tireless efforts of Congress to ensure that local broadcasters have a vibrant and robust future.”
“Tens of millions of Americans rely every day on local TV broadcasters for news, entertainment, sports and life-saving weather warnings,” Smith continued. “We look forward to working with Congress and the FCC to implement an incentive auction program that does not jeopardize that service.”
For more from Chloe, follow her on Twitter @ChloeAlbanesius.
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