Spectrum auction bill clears US House panel

Thu Dec 1, 2011 5:33pm EST

* Bill would clear FCC to auction TV airwaves

* Auction proceeds would help fund public safety network

* Waxman said Democrats not treated well in this process

By Jasmin Melvin

WASHINGTON, Dec 1 (Reuters) - A bill to create a wireless network for public safety and make more airwaves available to bandwidth-hungry communications companies passed a House panel on Thursday despite objections from Democrats over the treatment of certain airwaves.

The bill would help meet the booming demand for mobile devices and give a highly sought-after block of airwaves called the D Block to public safety to build an interoperable wireless network to ease communication between first responders.

The House communications and technology subcommittee voted 17-6, largely down party lines with only one Democrat voting in its favor, to advance the Republican-backed bill to the full House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Wireless carriers like AT&T Inc and Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc and Vodafone Group Plc , have clamored for access to more airwaves to stave off a looming spectrum crunch that would mean clogged networks, more dropped calls and slower connection speeds for wireless customers.

The subcommittee backed giving the Federal Communications Commission authority to auction some airwaves currently held by television broadcasters and shift their use to mobile broadband. Estimates of the proceeds are for as much as $28 billion.

Some auction proceeds would go to broadcasters giving up spectrum and some would help fund the construction and maintenance of a wireless public safety network. The remaining money would go toward cutting the U.S. budget deficit.

Democrats had pushed to postpone the markup, citing too little time to review the draft legislation released on Tuesday and a desire to see more compromise in the bill drafted by subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden.

"We feel Democrats have not been well treated in this process," said Henry Waxman, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

An alternative bill offered by the Democrats was defeated in a partisan vote.

That bill would have created a nonprofit governance body to oversee the public safety network. Instead, the bill puts a private entity in charge of buildout decision-making, and utilizes resources at the FCC to oversee the network.

Democrats also pushed to allow the FCC to use some of the reclaimed spectrum for unlicensed use, but were shot down.

Waxman added that an amendment blocking the FCC from placing net neutrality or wholesale conditions on auctioned spectrum was a poison that could bring down the whole bill.

"You can add this in here if you want, but it's not going to survive. The Senate is not going to accept it," Waxman said. The amendment was approved by voice vote.

BROADCASTERS ON BOARD

A national communications system for first responders would allow emergency personnel from different jurisdictions, states and units to seamlessly talk to each other.

The National Association of Broadcasters threw its support behind the bill.

"This bill balances sound spectrum policy with protections against the potential considerable loss of local TV service by millions of Americans," NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith said in a statement.

Broadcasters had worried about the unintended consequences that parting with airwaves could have on their TV signals and the viewers they serve.

The FCC would have to "repack" the TV band to clear large contiguous blocks of spectrum considered best for mobile broadband use. Concern arose that this could increase interference and degrade broadcasters' signal strength.

NAB said its support was contingent on auctions being voluntary and no harm coming to TV stations that decide not to part with their airwaves.

The bill instructs the FCC on how to handle repacking the TV band and provides protections for broadcasters. It sets aside up to $3 billion from auction proceeds -- three times the amount proposed by Democrats -- to compensate broadcasters who have to move or share their channel after the TV band is repacked.

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