President Obama waded into a handful of telecom battles that he had previously sidestepped when he released the American Jobs Act on Monday.
The White House had long endorsed general spectrum proposals in what amounted to a broad vision on communications issues. It had called on Congress to authorize a program to sell off spectrum--persuading broadcasters and others to put some of their frequencies on the auction block--and to give public safety agencies both the airwaves, known as the D-block--and funding for an emergency communications network.
But the administration never prescribed a way forward on these proposals, opting to let lawmakers squabble over the specifics. The American Jobs Act represents the White House's first foray into the nitty-gritty of telecom legislation.
It could be particularly messy that the White House offered legislative language on incentive auctions, and the move could turn some telecom allies into critics.
Incentive auctions would free up airwaves for mobile broadband by repurposing TV spectrum to wireless companies. TV stations would be offered a cut of the revenue as an incentive to go out of business, and the government would get some cash for deficit reduction as well.
The White House’s high-level stance on the auctions won wide backing from tech and wireless companies. But companies may become less uniformly thrilled with the White House now that it has offered specifics.
In particular, some companies might be wary of the position the White House staked out on so-called unlicensed spectrum, the unassigned swaths of airwaves that could potentially house superfast Wi-Fi networks. The White House bill fails to take sufficient pains to preserve these airwaves, says Michael Calabrese, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation on tech issues.
He noted that other Democrats supported keeping some of these frequencies available. "I can only imagine it’s because they believe it will raise a bit more money at auction,” Calabrese said by e-mail.
This White House position could strain alliances with some tech companies. For instance, Google's top economist, Hal Varian, helped the administration cheerlead for incentive auctions at a White House event earlier this year. But Google is also a top proponent of preserving unlicensed spectrum and might not support incentive auctions that fail to do so.
Before releasing specifics, the White House had also managed to evade strong criticism from broadcasters. The National Association of Broadcasters instead lobbed its complaints at the Federal Communications Commission, which would be responsible for some of the fine print on auction structure if a bill passes. NAB even wrote a friendly letter to the White House last year pledging to help the administration accomplish its spectrum goals.
That dynamic could change now that the White House has its own bill. Provided with competing proposals in Congress, broadcasters could grow more critical of the White House stance.
For instance, the White House bill grants broad authority to the FCC to launch a rulemaking process that will determine how broadcasters are compensated in the auctions. The House GOP, wary of granting the FCC too much power, was more specific in its bill about broadcaster returns. (NAB has not yet commented on the White House legislation released on Monday.)
Even companies that previously saw Obama as a spectrum ally will have to read the bill before endorsing it. CTIA, the wireless association, sounded a hopeful note, but it failed to throw its weight behind it. And that's from a trade group with arguably the most to win in these proposals.
Steve Largent, CTIA's president, said in a statement: “While we are reviewing the proposed legislation with our members, CTIA appreciates the administration’s continued support for spectrum auctions."
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