Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of a key House subcommittee that shapes telecom policy, is holding firm to his position that spectrum claimed by public safety groups for a nationwide emergency communications network should be auctioned. The stance of the powerful congressman, who heads the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, puts him on a collision course with President Obama and influential Democrats in Congress, including Senate Commerce Chairman John Rockefeller. Police, fire and rescue squads want to couple the frequencies in question with spectrum they already control, and warn without the additional megahertz, safety could be compromised during the next national tragedy.
President Obama will officially endorse handing over the spectrum, known as the D-block, to public safety in the administration's budget set for release on Monday. Meanwhile, Rockefeller has introduced legislation to reallocate the D-block to first responders and will hold a Feb. 16 hearing on the topic. In an ironic twist, Walden's position dovetails with that of Democratic FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, with whom the congressman has clashed on several other regulatory matters. Sprint and T-Mobile, which want to bid on the frequencies to expand their commercial wireless footprints, insist that the needs of public safety can be met without the D-block.
Speaking Wednesday morning to the Ripon Society, a Republican organization named for the Wisconsin town where the GOP was born, Walden said, "I'm in the category that believes it is the public's auction. It's the public's spectrum. And it should be auctioned." Nevertheless, he emphasized that "public safety has needs that we need to help them address." Walden warned that if the D-block is not auctioned, a significant revenue-generating opportunity would be lost. "You open a three billion dollar wound in a rather bleeding budget," Walden said, referring to the estimate of how much the airwaves would raise. "Spectrum is a really valuable commodity that the taxpayers own."