Incentive auction bill moves forward


The House Communications Subcommittee passed the incentive-auction-containing JOBS Act on a partisan 17-6 vote, and not without controversy. Democrats said the two parties were working steadily toward a strong bipartisan bill until talks were cut off 10/4/11, and the discussion draft of the bill that was introduced 11/29/11 contained some elements that the minority strongly disagreed with. However, the broadcast television protections contained in the bill were not prominent on this list, and an amendment passed that ordered resolution of issues concerning repacking television stations along the Canadian and Mexican borders.

The draft, which earlier earned an endorsement from NAB President/CEO Gordon Smith, contains three planks important to broadcasters – acknowledgement that participation in the auctions is entirely voluntary; that participants would get a share of the auction proceeds; and that expenses incurred by stations forced to move do to a channel repacking program would be compensated, up to a national total of $3B.

Commerce Committee Chairman Emeritus John Dingell (D-MI) and Brian Bilbray (R-CA), were concerned about television stations facing a challenging channel repacking situation due to their proximity to Canada and Mexico (station channel reassignment possibilities are compromised by international spectrum agreements). Dingell went so far as the say that the FCC has shown no inclination to deal with this issue. Their amendment passed easily, on a bipartisan voice vote – it provides that the US must complete the coordination process with Canada and Mexico before channel reassignments are ordered by the FCC.

Democratic committee members did not mention broadcast provisions a great deal until late in the proceeding as they were enumerating their problems with the Republican discussion draft; and when they did bring up the relocation compensation portion, it was not to object to the concept, but rather to tie it to other issues.
Former Commerce Committee chair Joe Barton (R-TX) even said that the minority had a legitimate gripe in the way the new bill was dropped on them. However, he said that the need for speed was paramount.

The majority claimed that in the spirit of compromise, it had included language dedicating D-block spectrum for the establishment of a national public safety network, rather than auctioning that spectrum off and making it available to public safety organizations as needed.

However, Democrats were not pleased with a plan that would avoid a single national oversight agency to administer the program, instead having each of the 50 states create its own oversight agency, with national oversight provided by a designated private company.

Another bone of contention is the lack of any provision for spectrum allocated for the use of unlicensed devices. This is a particular concern of Subcommittee Ranking Member Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who represents the Silicon Valley area which is one of the primary constituencies interested in making use of unlicensed spectrum.

Democrats also wanted to make sure that auctions of spectrum would be set up so that they would not be dominated by a few large corporations; and were concerned that the FCC would be stripped of its ability to assure that the auctions were conducted in a manner consistent with the public interest.

On the issue of unlicensed spectrum, Eshoo touted its very successful recent history and its use by very small innovative companies as a key, particularly since it lowers the barrier to entry into the field. Subcommittee Chair Greg Walden (R-OR) agreed that these companies can be small and their innovations can be great; they can also be very large – and his party just couldn’t see giving the spectrum away to any one group of companies for free, and was open to looking for other alternatives to accommodate unlicensed use.

Democratic alternative was offered as an amendment, and as a substitute to the Republican bill. It was voted down, unsurprisingly, on a party-line vote.

Deep into the proceeding, Democrats questioned the allocation of $3B for broadcast relocation expense compensation.

The Republican background memo of the discussion draft can be read here, and the actual bill can be read here.