A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee appears set to act as soon as next week on legislation aimed at freeing up more spectrum for wireless broadband technologies and helping public safety officials build a national broadband communications network.
The panel’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee is aiming to mark up the yet-to-be introduced legislation next week, a panel spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
The House has been much slower to act on the issue than the Senate. The Communications and Technology Subcommittee held a hearing in July on draft legislation offered by that panel’s chairman, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., but the issue has been in limbo since then.
Congressional leaders toyed with but ultimately rejected the idea of including spectrum legislation in the deal they reached in early August to extend the nation’s borrowing authority. The auctions authorized by Senate spectrum legislation have been estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to be capable of raising more than $24 billion. Now stakeholders say spectrum legislation could be included in the package being developed by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction that must come up with at least $1.2 trillion in budgetary savings by Thanksgiving.
The Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation in June that would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to conduct incentive auctions aimed at enticing broadcasters and others to give up some of their spectrum in exchange for a share in the proceeds from the auction of those airwaves. The measure also would reallocate a swath of spectrum known as the D-block to public safety officials for the creation of a national broadband network and authorize funding from the incentive auctions to help build it. Current law calls for the D-block to be auctioned to commercial bidders.
Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said last week that he is hopeful that his spectrum legislation will be included in the deficit reduction committee’s package. “I’m feeling pretty good about it,” he said.
The issue of whether to give public safety officials the D-block has proven to be one of the big stumbling blocks between the House and Senate on spectrum legislation. Both President Obama and top House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats have come out in support of reallocating the D-block to public safety, but key House Republicans have resisted the idea. Walden's draft bill called for maintaining current law.
Energy and Commerce Republicans and Democrats have been negotiating in recent days to resolve their differences on the spectrum legislation and are in agreement on about 80 percent of the legislation, said Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for the wireless industry group CTIA. The group held a briefing with reporters on Wednesday to discuss spectrum legislation and other issues.
One possible solution would be to hold a separate vote on whether to reallocate the D-block to public safety officials, industry sources said. Walden and other Republicans would like to approve a bill with bipartisan support because it would likely strengthen their hand in talks on the issue within the deficit reduction committee, several sources said.
Freeing up more spectrum to meet the public’s growing demand for wireless broadband technologies is the top priority for the wireless industry. CTIA President Steve Largent, a former GOP House member, voiced confidence that the industry’s lobbying efforts will pay off this year regardless of whether spectrum legislation moves on its own or as part of another vehicle.
“We’re willing to pay for spectrum we want to use and the government needs the money,” Largent said. “I don’t think the debate is about whether it’ll happen or not. I can say fairly confidently that it is going to happen. It’s a question of when.”
This article appears in the September 28, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.