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House subcommittee approves spectrum incentive auctions

The JOBS Act would also provide spectrum and funding for a nationwide public safety network

A U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee has approved legislation that would provide funding for a nationwide mobile broadband network for public safety agencies and would allow the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to sell auction spectrum voluntarily given up by U.S. television stations.

The communications and technology subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum Act (JOBS Act) on a 17-6 vote Thursday. The bill now heads to the full committee for debate.

The bill, which should open up new spectrum for commercial mobile services, could lead to 100,000 new U.S. jobs and bring US$15 billion in auction revenue to the U.S. treasury, said subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and sponsor the bill.

"Primarily, this legislation is about getting America's economy going again," Walden said. "It is a bill that frees up vast swaths of valuable spectrum, both licensed and unlicensed, that when put into service will unleash new technologies. It will spur innovation."

The subcommittee, on a voice vote, approved a controversial amendment that would prohibit the FCC from enforcing net neutrality rules on new spectrum license holders. Democrats argued against the amendment from Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican.

The JOBS Act would allow the FCC to share spectrum auction proceeds with TV stations that voluntarily give up unneeded spectrum. The FCC called for authority to conduct so-called incentive auctions in its national broadband plan, released in March 2010.

The bill would also allocate 10MHz of spectrum unsold in the FCC's 2008 700MHz auction to public safety agencies. The FCC had designated the D block of spectrum for a shared commercial and public safety network, but the agency did not receive the minimum bids it wanted for the spectrum. The JOBS Act would provide up to $6.5 billion in grants to help build the public safety network.

Many public safety groups have since called on Congress to give the D block to them as a way to kickstart the building of a nationwide mobile broadband network for police, fire and other emergency response agencies. Lawmakers, public safety officials and other experts have been calling for a nationwide public safety network since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Many Republicans, including Walden, had previously opposed giving away the D block, saying instead it should be sold at auction, with the money going toward the U.S. government's budget deficit. The compromise is a result of a "year's worth" of hearings and negotiations, he said.

Some subcommittee Democrats objected to parts of the bill, saying it would leave no room for unlicensed services like super Wi-Fi to be used in the turned over TV spectrum. "Closing spectrum bands to future innovation is foolhardy," said Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat.

Still, Eshoo praised the bill for its focus on a nationwide public safety network and on opening up more spectrum to mobile broadband. The legislation "has real meaning for our nation, for our economy, our innovation and competitiveness, and it even helps to pay down our national debt," she said.

Eshoo offered an amendment that would have opened up the TV spectrum to unlicensed uses and would have created an independent governing board for the nationwide public safety network. The subcommittee rejected the amendment.

The Public Safety Alliance, a coalition of public safety associations, praised the JOBS Act. The bill is a "workable solution" that includes an allocation of the D block and funding for a nationwide network, the group said.

The National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group that has questioned the idea of incentive auctions, said it supported the bill that passed out of the subcommittee. The bill includes protections for TV stations on the Canadian and Mexican borders with limited spectrum available to change channels, the NAB said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is [email protected]


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