President Obama’s jobs bill presents yet another vehicle for moving spectrum legislation, but provides little clarity on which path Congress ultimately will take to move a measure aimed at freeing up more spectrum for wireless broadband technologies and building a national broadband network for public safety.
The spectrum provisions included in the jobs bill the White House sent to Capitol Hill on Monday are similar to a bill approved in June by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. They do, however, include some new ideas—at least one of which is likely to cause the wireless industry and others heartburn.
The president’s proposal would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to impose spectrum fees on some holders. It explicitly exempts broadcast television and public-safety spectrum holders, but could target other spectrum users including wireless carriers and radio broadcasters. A National Association of Broadcasters spokesman said the possibility that radio broadcasters could be subject to such fees is a “major concern.”
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., vice chairman of the Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, told reporters on Tuesday that the spectrum-fees proposal in the president’s jobs plan “devalues” spectrum. “Anything that whittles away at the value of spectrum is self-defeating in the long run,” Terry said.
Terry said spectrum legislation included in the jobs bill was not what he expected. He said it’s the opposite of a proposal Energy and Commerce Republicans have been drafting. That draft bill, released in July, would auction off a swath of spectrum known as the D-block to commercial bidders, as required by current law. The Obama plan and the Senate Commerce bill would instead give the D-block to public-safety officials, as they have been demanding, for a national broadband network.
While industry sources say that Energy and Commerce may still mark up spectrum legislation, Terry said he believes spectrum legislation could end up as part of the package the joint deficit-reduction committee is trying to craft.
A spokeswoman for Energy and Commerce Republicans said the GOP agrees that “spectrum is an important opportunity to promote innovation, job creation, and the development of a nationwide, interoperable broadband network for public safety. That is why the committee has prioritized it this year with five hearings and development of a draft proposal, and it remains a priority for the fall,” she said.
Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., told reporters on Tuesday that he and Communications and Technology Subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., are still trying to negotiate a bipartisan spectrum bill with the panel’s Republican members. He said, however, that he is “frustrated by the slow progress” of those discussions.
In the Senate, Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who authored the panel’s spectrum bill, issued a statement late on Monday praising the president’s decision to include spectrum legislation in his jobs bill but did not comment on the spectrum-fee proposal.
Public-safety officials on Tuesday promoted a report issued last week that details how building a public-safety broadband network could generate thousands of new jobs, making it an important element in any legislation Congress passes to spur job creation.
The report from private advisory firm Sonecon for the Telecommunications Industry Association underscores the need for the network, “both to keep our nation safe during terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and everyday emergencies, and to help spark the economy with new, positive job creation,” said Gregg Riddle, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International.
“Indeed, it begs the question: What exactly is Congress waiting for before they will act on this bipartisan legislation?” Riddle said.
This article appears in the September 14, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.