Spectrum and the art of congressional compromise


Republican and Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee released separate summaries of the spectrum legislation included in the big tax relief bill, providing an interesting glimpse into the give and take that produced the finished product.

Republicans noted that the bill authorizing the FCC to conduct incentive auctions of television spectrum included key protections for the incumbent broadcasters – this is what the NAB was happy about when it commented on the legislation.

Republicans also noted that the final take expected from the auction to the benefit of taxpayers — $15B – is “more than double the amount initially proposed by the Senate.” (An early CBO score predicted that after various expenses were deducted, the auction would net only $6B.) They also noted that limitations were placed on the FCC’s ability to exclude bidders.

Democrats were touting the fact that space was left for unlicensed devices, in existing white spaces between television channels and in guard bands – and noted that this includes leaving space in densely-packed large markets that lack much room for this sort of thing at the moment. On the topic of limiting bidders, Democrats said that enough flexibility was granted to the FCC to assure that enough bidders are able to acquire spectrum to assure there are more than just one or two licensees per market.

Both sides touted the set-aside for a public safety network. The Republicans had originally wanted to bid spectrum out that would be made available to first-responders on an as-needed basis, a plan which the Democrats were able to trump. An earlier Republican bill also would have given each state authority over its share of public safety spectrum – under the adopted plan, it will be a national network, with an opt-out provision for states who desire to run their own system and demonstrate the ability to provide equivalent service. Republicans trumpeted their success in preventing the creating of a new government agency to administer the system – instead, it will be put under the auspices of the NTIA.

Democrats had stated that a Republican amendment preventing the FCC from setting open-internet, or network neutrality requirement on auctioned spectrum to be a poison pill. They stated that the amendment was dropped and the FCC’s authority in this matter was confirmed.