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Tech / TECHNOLOGY

Kerry Seeks Internet Help on Spectrum

January 31, 2012

Two weeks after Internet users helped sideline controversial online piracy legislation, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., urged the Internet community on Tuesday to again rally to push Congress to free up more unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi and other new wireless technologies.

“It’s going to take your voices and the voices of a whole bunch of folks similar to what happened a few weeks ago ... to just rise up and make clear that that freedom, that the accessibility, capacity for innovation is vital to our future competitive position,” Kerry, chairman of the Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee, said at an event sponsored by the Wireless Innovation Alliance and the New America Foundation. 

Kerry was discussing concerns about a provision included in House spectrum legislation that would limit the ability of the Federal Communications Commission to free up more spectrum for unlicensed uses such as Wi-Fi.

 

Almost anyone who uses a tablet computer, laptop, or smartphone has likely taken advantage of the availability of unlicensed spectrum the FCC has provided in the past by using one of the growing Wi-Fi spots available at coffee shops, stores, and other places around the country. Kerry and other lawmakers, as well as tech companies, public-interest groups, and others, would like to see the FCC free up even more unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi and new technologies but worry the provision in the spectrum bill approved by the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee could derail that effort.

Kerry argued that the need for unlicensed spectrum for a whole range of current and future innovations is as important as the concerns raised in recent weeks about online-piracy legislation. Earlier this month, thousands of websites blocked part or all of their sites in protest over the online-piracy legislation, which critics said would stifle innovation and free speech on the Internet. The protest helped push congressional leaders to shelve the online piracy legislation for now. 

House and Senate negotiations on extending a payroll-tax cut may include spectrum legislation in the compromise package to help pay for the cost of tax legislation. Supporters of unlicensed spectrum don’t want conferees to include the House’s language if they include spectrum legislation in the final payroll-tax package. The House GOP spectrum bill would bar the FCC from reserving some spectrum from the so-called incentive auctions authorized by the legislation for unlicensed uses and would restrict the ability of the FCC to structure the auctions as they see fit. Incentive auctions are aimed at getting broadcasters to give up some of their spectrum for a share in the revenues. 

Reed Hundt, who served as FCC chairman during the Clinton administration, described the House spectrum bill as “the single worst telecom bill I have ever seen.” Hundt, however, said he is concerned it could get passed as part of the payroll-tax package because many members want to see payroll-tax cut extended.

The House Communications and Technology Subcommittee approved its spectrum bill, which was drafted by subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., late last year despite opposition from the panel’s top Democrats. The spectrum bill was included in the payroll-tax package approved by the House. The Senate Commerce Committee approved its own spectrum legislation last summer. The Wireless Innovation Alliance, a coalition of tech companies, public-interest groups and others, prefers Senate Commerce’s language on the issue but the Senate did not include spectrum legislation in its payroll-tax measure. 

Supporters of the House spectrum language may have the upper hand in negotiations with the Senate on the payroll-tax package. Both Walden and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., are among the House conferees on the payroll-tax measure as is Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif. However, no Senate Commerce Committee members are on the payroll-tax conference panel, which would allow them to directly push for their version of the spectrum legislation.

“I’m worried … about the dynamics of the payroll-tax process because I’m not sure everybody engaged in that shares quite the same sensitivity that is represented in this room and elsewhere,” Kerry said.

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