House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., released long-awaited legislation on Tuesday that would free up spectrum for mobile broadband and also give public-safety officials airwaves and cash for a national broadband network.
Walden says that the Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum Act of 2011 can cut $15 billion off the deficit. It also will spur billions of dollars in private investment and create thousands of jobs, he says.
The House Communications Subcommittee has scheduled a markup on the draft bill for Thursday. The draft bill addresses a key demand of wireless providers by giving the Federal Communications Commission authority to hold incentive auctions in which broadcasters would give up spectrum to wireless providers in exchange for some of the proceeds.
Walden had been in talks with Democrats for months in hopes of developing a bipartisan agreement, but that effort appears to have stalled. Democrats say they will offer their own legislation.
“Following nearly a year of hearings, meetings, and negotiations, I am disappointed that we could not develop a bipartisan bill,” Walden said in a statement. “But for the sake of the economy and public safety, we need to take the best ideas, which are represented in the JOBS Act, and move forward with a subcommittee vote on Thursday.”
Walden appears to have agreed to one of the committee Democrats’ key demands to allocate a chunk of spectrum known as the D-block for a national broadband public-safety network. The bill also authorizes $6.5 billion to build the network. In exchange, public safety will eventually have to give up use of some narrowband spectrum for auction for commercial users.
Even though Democrats appeared to have won on this issue, Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., issued a statement on Tuesday saying he is not satisfied with the process used to craft the bill, though he did not specifically say he opposes Walden’s latest draft.
“Republicans regrettably ceased negotiations with us Oct. 4, just as … the discussions started to get serious and significant progress looked possible,” Waxman said in a statement. “Despite our repeated requests, they never resumed negotiations. Spectrum legislation should be bipartisan and we hope Chairmen Walden and [full committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich.] will return to the bargaining table.”
Despite their call for bipartisan cooperation, Waxman and Communications and Technology Subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., also said Tuesday that they plan to introduce their own spectrum legislation with other Democrats on the panel. Among the differences with the Walden draft is the Democrats’ bill would give the FCC more flexibility to free up spectrum for unlicensed uses such as super-fast Wi-Fi, which has been a key priority for Eshoo.
Public-safety officials said they are pleased to see that Walden has given in to their demand for the D-block. “This is major progress as far as recognizing the need for the D-block and the need for considerable funding to expedite the build-out" of the broadband network, said Sean Kirkendall, a spokesman for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials–International.
Still, he said his group still has some concerns with the Walden draft, including questions about how much money would be allocated for the broadband network, the governing structure created by the bill for developing and maintaining the network, and the requirement that public safety give up use of narrowband spectrum.
That spectrum is currently used by emergency first-responders for voice communications at the scene of emergencies.
The broadband network they want to build with the D-block would only be available for data and video at first and would not be able to carry voice communications for some time, Kirkendall said.
The Senate Commerce Committee approved spectrum legislation in June that also would give the D-block to public safety but includes other key differences. Most notably, the Senate measure would allocate much more money to building the public-safety network and, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate, would only generate $6.5 billion for deficit reduction. This has been a key issue in recent months as congressional leaders have weighed including spectrum legislation in various vehicles aimed at reducing the deficit.