As they prepare to hold their fourth hearing on spectrum issues on Wednesday, House Energy and Commerce Committee Republican leaders still appear at odds with a key Senate panel over whether to give public safety officials a valuable piece of spectrum that they are seeking for a national broadband network.
The Communications and Technology Subcommittee’s latest hearing will focus on the government’s use of spectrum but it may also touch on some of the broader spectrum issues that Congress has been grappling with in recent years.
Policymakers have been working to free up more spectrum to meet public demand for wireless-broadband services, while also helping build a national wireless public safety network that would ensure first responders can communicate with each other during an emergency.
The 9/11 attacks exposed deep problems with the communications systems used by first responders when fire fighters and police officers couldn’t communicate with each other.
After a decade of marginal progress on the problem, the Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation last month that would reallocate a chunk of spectrum, known as the D-block, to public safety officials for a network and put in place a way to help fund its buildout. Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is pushing for Senate passage of his bill before the 10th anniversary of the 2001 attacks.
The D-block is currently slated under current law to be auctioned off to commercial providers but public safety officials want it, and the White House and some wireless firms such as AT&T agree they should have it.
Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., however, has said giving the D-block away to public safety officials would leave a hole in the budget at a time when Congress is looking for ways to reduce the deficit. While the panel has not released a draft of the spectrum legislation it is working on, Walden still favors auctioning it off, according to industry sources following the issue closely.
It’s unclear whether the Energy and Commere Committee would actually move a bill or attach legislation to a broader bill to raise the debt ceiling and reduce the deficit. Supporters say Rockefeller’s bill could raise as much as $10 billion.
A Rockefeller spokesman said staff from the House and Senate committees have been in discussions and did not rule out a compromise on the issue.
One area where there does appear to be some consensus between the two committees is on a provision that would authorize the FCC to conduct incentive auctions, which would allow the agency to share a portion of the auction proceeds with broadcasters and other spectrum holders who voluntarily give up their airwaves.
Wednesday’s hearing will feature only one witness, National Telecommunications and Information Administration Director Lawrence Strickling, who will update the panel on his agency’s efforts to identify spectrum that could be freed for commercial use. In his written testimony for Wednesday’s hearing, Strickling asks Congress to ensure that regulators have more flexibility in managing spectrum.
“Legislation that accomplishes the goals of improving spectrum management, providing a modern communications for the nation’s first responders, while at the same time providing for considerable deficit reduction, is a compelling policy opportunity we must pursue to win the future and live within our means,” he wrote.