Spectrum bill with TV auction plank clears committee


A bill that among other things will authorize the FCC to conduct voluntary auctions of returned broadcast television spectrum to help finance construction of a national interoperable public safety communications network has been approved by the Senate Commerce Committee. The vote was 21-4. One senator sought better protection for migrating television stations, and another sought protection for LPTV service.

S. 911, the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act had powerful impetus since it was backed both by Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX).

The establishment of such a network has been a national goal since the events of 9/11/01, and you would be hard pressed to find anybody on Capitol Hill who opposes the idea of an interoperable network. However, there are serious differences in approach to achieving that goal, and Rockefeller and Hutchison claimed to have done much of the heavy lifting to work out initial differences between the two parties.

Opposition to the bill came from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), Ranking Member of the Committee’s Communications Subcommittee. He sees it as another hit to the deficit and another intrusion of the government into an area best served by the private sector.

There is still work to be done, and a few members who had pushed amendments with broadcast implications agreed to keep them out of the bill passed today with the promise of continuing to work for them.

NAB promised to continue to play a role in the process. NAB President/CEO Gordon Smith said, “NAB appreciates the hard work of Chairman Rockefeller and ranking member Hutchison in shepherding through today’s legislation. As the process moves forward, NAB will work with policymakers to help ensure that broadcasters are able to deliver on the promise of free and local digital television made to tens of millions of viewers.”

The senators representing the state of Missouri voiced concern about broadcast aspects of the bill.

Roy Blunt (R-MO) was one who sat on a broadcast amendment. He wants to strengthen language in the bill that will insure that any repacking of stations in the television band is done in such a way that no Americans lose access to any broadcast television station. He noted that this was not the case during the DTV transition and does not want loss-of-service issues to crop up again this time around.

Clair McCaskill (D-MO) felt that LPTV stations were in danger of being thrown under the bus. She said they are often the only source of local news and information, and in other places, they are often the only place where niche programming can be found. McCaskill noted that the lack of protections written into S.911 threatens niche, minority and small business operations, and promised to continue to work on their behalf.

Remarks from Rockefeller indicated that McCaskill’s concerns are both genuine, and warranted. The Chairman noted that LPTV was taken into consideration as the bill was being put together, but the simple fact is that it is a secondary service, and as such is likely to remain at the back of the line when final decisions on spectrum are made.

RBR-TVBR observation: Legislators managed to find enough of a measure of consensus between the two parties to get this bill through committee, but getting it through the House is another matter. Some of the Senate Republicans had a vastly different idea on how the public safety network should be structured, and if their way of thinking holds sway in the House, this matter could continue simmering in Washington for some time.