The late-night payroll-tax-cut reached by congressional negotiators deal raises $15 billion for the budget, would provide more spectrum for wireless broadband, and would help public-safety officials build a national broadband network.
House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., who was on the payroll-tax conference committee and authored the House’s spectrum bill, said the spectrum auctions authorized under the deal should generate about $15 billion for the payroll-tax package. Lawmakers were hoping for a House vote by the end of the week.
“Nobody got everything they wanted,” Walden told reporters on Thursday. “But I think we got a good product that … should achieve bipartisan support and good policy for the country to build out and technologically advance; [it also should] generate some revenue for the government and an incredible number of jobs.”
The negotiators appear to have settled many of the policy disputes that had clouded efforts to craft compromise spectrum legislation.
Public-safety officials will be getting much of what they were demanding. They get a swath of spectrum known as the D-block for the creation of their broadband network but won’t have to give back narrow-band spectrum that they now use for voice communications, according to a draft of the spectrum language obtained by National Journal.
The House GOP version of the spectrum bill would have required public-safety officials to give up that narrow-band spectrum. Instead, lawmakers identified alternative spectrum known as the T-band that is less widely used than the narrow band but could affect current voice communications in some big markets such as Los Angeles.
The legislation also authorizes the use of $7 billion from incentive auction proceeds to build the public-safety network. It would establish a First Responder Network Authority, overseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, to help oversee the creation of the public-safety network and gather input from local, state, and federal officials.
The public-safety network was a top priority for Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and will fulfill a key recommendation of the commission that investigated the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Communication difficulties hampered emergency response to those attacks in New York and led to the deaths of hundreds of first responders. “First responders will be able to do their job better, will be more safe doing it, and be more efficient in doing it,” Rockefeller said at a news conference.
Broadcasters said they were satisfied that stations that choose not to sell airwaves at incentive auctions would be protected under the bill, and would get financial help if they are forced to move to another section of the TV band.
Broadcasters who do choose to give up their airwaves would get some of the proceeds from the auctions, an amount to be determined by the Federal Communications Commission. Broadcasters were also pleased that language was included to require the FCC to work with Canada and Mexico to ensure that viewers in cities along the northern and southern borders do not lose access to over-the-air television.
The National Association of Broadcasters “salutes the tireless efforts of Congress to ensure that local broadcasters have a vibrant and robust future,” association President and CEO Gordon Smith said in a statement.
Another key issue concerned the fate of unlicensed spectrum. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., the ranking member on Walden’s subcommittee, had been pushing to ensure the FCC could set aside more spectrum for unlicensed uses such as Wi-Fi, a cause championed by tech companies. Eshoo said she was generally pleased with the unlicensed language in the spectrum deal. Although it does not set aside a chunk of spectrum for unlicensed uses, the deal would allow for unlicensed uses in the “guard bands” between the swaths of spectrum that will be auctioned to wireless providers.
“I think today is a victory for entrepreneurs and small businesses around the country because the agreement reached last night is going to ensure that the FCC has the flexibility to preserve and promote unlicensed use in the television bands,” Eshoo said.
The spectrum deal modified a provision in Walden’s spectrum bill that would have restricted the FCC from limiting who can participate in the FCC auctions. Under the deal, the FCC is generally barred from keeping certain wireless companies from bidding, but the commission would be allowed to launch an open rule-making that could eventually limit the participants in some auctions.
The FCC’s general-auction authority expires at the end of September. But under the spectrum deal, that power would be extended until 2022.