After months of debate and hearings, the House passed spectrum legislation Tuesday as part of a larger package that includes a payroll tax holiday.
The package, passed on a 234-193 vote, faces an uncertain future. Senate Democratic leaders have said the package will likely fail in that chamber and President Obama has vowed to veto the payroll tax package if it remains in its current form.
To help offset the cost of the measure, the payroll tax package includes spectrum legislation that could raise $16 billion for the Treasury from spectrum auctions. The spectrum language is largely similar, with a few changes, to the draft bill approved by the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee earlier this month.
That bill would free up more spectrum for wireless broadband by authorizing "incentive auctions" that would cut in broadcasters for a share of the revenue if they give up some of their spectrum. It would provide spectrum and funding to build a broadband network for public safety officials.
All but one of the panel's Democrats opposed the bill in subcommittee and Energy and Commerce Democrats reiterated their concerns Tuesday with the legislation during the floor debate on the payroll tax package.
Communications and Technology Subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said she opposed the bill's treatment of unlicensed spectrum. And while Energy and Commerce Republicans gave in to demands from Democrats and public safety groups to reallocate a chunk of spectrum known as the D-block to public safety, Eshoo and a coalition of public safety groups worried about other provisions in the bill related to the build out of the public safety network.
"I'm very concerned about how this bill treats the spectrum public safety needs to create and manage a nationwide, interoperable broadband network," Eshoo said during floor debate on the payroll tax measure. "What the Republican bill does, is on the one hand it gives, and on the other hand it takes away. This is not a solution, and I don't believe it's fair to public safety, and our country. "
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski also complained about the bill.
"Over the last weeks and months, we have conveyed to members of Congress and their staff concerns about provisions that would reduce FCC flexibility to maximize the overall value of freed-up spectrum, enhance spectrum efficiency, and promote robust innovation and investment," Genachowski said in a statement. "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."
But Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., said he has spent months working with Democrats and the bill's stakeholders on the legislation. "At some point, the American people say stop talking and get it done," Walden said in his floor remarks. "That's what this legislation does with this bigger bill."
Despite this, staffers from both the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee, which passed its own version of spectrum legislation in June, have been meeting over the last week to try to hammer out their differences. And even if the House payroll tax package fails, supporters will continue looking for other avenues to move the spectrum legislation or continue trying to advance it through the regular legislative process.
Rhod Shaw, executive director of the High Tech Spectrum Coalition, praised the House vote as "a vital step forward". "Without passage of voluntary incentive auction legislation this year the FCC will not have the tools necessary to meet the rising demand for spectrum," Shaw said.