A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee approved spectrum legislation on Thursday despite strong disagreements between Democrats and Republicans over key issues including governance of a national broadband public safety network and the treatment of unlicensed spectrum.
On a 16-7 nearly party line vote, the Communications and Technology Subcommittee approved panel chairman Greg Walden's, R-Ore.,Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum Act. Rep. John Barrow of Georgia was the only Democrat to vote with the Republicans on the final vote.
Democrats had called on the committee’s GOP leaders to postpone the markup so the two sides could have more time to negotiate some of their remaining differences.
“The bad news is the process has broken down and the substance is in need of serious repair. The good news is that both are fixable,” said Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
Walden said he would continue to work with the committee’s Democrats and said he expects to mark up the spectrum bill in full committee next week. He noted that Waxman indicated that Democrats already have some fresh ideas on some of the remaining issues.
“We’re continuing to talk as we have from the beginning,” Walden said. “There are things, though, that we just may not get agreement on. We cannot fail to move forward because we can’t agree. That’s one of the burdens of the majority.”
The legislation is focused on freeing up more spectrum to meet growing demand for wireless broadband technologies and also help public safety officials build a national broadband network to improve communications during emergencies.
Like the other spectrum measures proposed in Congress this year, the Walden draft would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to hold incentive auctions to entice broadcasters to sell some of their spectrum to wireless providers, with the government taking a cut.
Democrats praised Walden for reversing his previous opposition and agreeing in his draft bill to reallocate a stretch of spectrum known as the D-block to public safety for a broadband network. Democrats, however, cited several other problems with the draft measure. Subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., offered the Democrats’ own spectrum legislation as a substitute to the bill, but it was rejected on a party-line vote.
Democrats criticized the governance structure the Walden bill establishes for managing the public safety network. They argued the measure could unnecessarily delay the rollout of the network by tapping a private contractor to oversee the process and also were critical of its call for 50 different state networks instead of the national network envisioned by public safety officials.
Democrats also complained about that the GOP draft does not give the FCC enough flexibility to ensure some spectrum generated from incentive auctions can be set aside for unlicensed uses such as super-fast Wi-Fi.
Further antagonizing Democrats, the subcommittee approved a controversial amendment from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., that would bar the FCC from imposing any network neutrality requirements when issuing licenses to wireless carriers following the incentive auctions.
Waxman argued that including the measure, after Walden agreed to take out similar language in an earlier draft of his bill, could make it harder to reach bipartisan compromise. “It may bring down the whole bill,” Waxman said.