WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Senate committee backed giving U.S. communications regulators authority to auction some airwaves currently used by broadcast television and to shift their use to mobile broadband.
The auction authority is seen as key to a Federal Communications Commission plan to free up additional airwaves to meet the booming demand for wireless services.
Incentive auctions, where some of the proceeds would go to the broadcasters giving up spectrum, are part of a bill to build a nationwide public safety network that was approved in a 21-4 vote by the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday.
Some 25 million Americans already watch video on smartphones and tablet computers like Apple Inc’s iPad, putting 120 times more demand on spectrum than older phones.
The FCC hopes to repurpose 120 megahertz of spectrum through voluntary auctions of television airwaves.
Broadcasters have been wary of the FCC plan, worried about the unintended consequences it could have on their TV signals and the 46 million viewers that still rely on over-the-air TV.
“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,” National Association of Broadcasters President and Chief Executive Gordon Smith said in a statement.
The bill backed by the committee on Wednesday would compensate not only those that give up their spectrum, but would also cover the costs of broadcasters who hold onto their airwaves but are “repacked” to clear large contiguous blocks of spectrum considered best for mobile broadband use.
“This legislation takes the essential first steps to address the nation’s critical shortage of licensed spectrum and sets the course for a vibrant wireless future,” said Rhod Shaw, executive director of the High Tech Spectrum Coalition, which includes Apple, Nokia, Cisco, and Qualcomm.
The bill would use auction proceeds not set aside for broadcasters to help fund the construction and maintenance of a wireless broadband public safety network. Any money left over after that would go toward reducing the U.S. budget deficit.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Rockefeller said the legislation was a necessary step to fulfilling a key 9/11 Commission recommendation for a wireless network that allows firemen, police and other first responders to easily communicate.
He has urged legislators to act swiftly so the legislation can be signed into law ahead of the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks by hijacked airliners.
The bill allocates the so-called D block, a 10-megahertz swath of spectrum coveted by wireless companies and safety groups, to a public safety network run by a nonprofit corporation with a board of legislative, regulatory, public safety and industry representatives.
The FCC would create standards allowing public safety officials to lease capacity on a secondary basis to wireless companies when the airwaves are not in use. These funds would help maintain the network.
Rockefeller said he would have conversations immediately about scheduling a vote by the full Senate. “I strongly encourage my colleagues in the House to also move forward with this legislation.”
The bill will likely see tougher scrutiny on the Senate floor and could face resistance in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives where leaders have said it would be better to auction the D block to wireless companies to build out a public safety network.
A previous effort to auction the D block for shared commercial use with public safety groups failed.
Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Tim Dobbyn