Rockefeller to introduce spectrum auction incentive bill

A powerful U.S. senator will introduce legislation allowing the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to share auction proceeds with spectrum holders that voluntarily give up unused bandwidth and will give police and fire departments additional spectrum for a nationwide wireless broadband network.

Senator John “Jay” Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said Wednesday he will introduce the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act in coming days. The bill would allow the FCC to conduct incentive auctions and share the proceeds with current spectrum holders such as television stations, as outlined in the agency’s national broadband plan released in March, he said.

“Radio spectrum is a very valuable resource,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “It can grow our economy and put new and innovative wireless services in the hands of consumers and businesses. It can enhance our public safety by fostering communications between first responders when the unthinkable occurs. But it is also scarce. That is why we need a forward-thinking spectrum policy that promotes smart use of our airwaves — and provides public safety officials with the wireless resources they need to keep us safe.”

The Rockefeller announcement allowing for incentive auctions is “fantastic news,” one senior FCC official said during a background briefing for the media.

The bill would also give emergency response agencies an additional 10MHz of spectrum for a nationwide wireless network, Rockefeller said. The 10MHz would likely come from the so-called D block in the 700MHz band of spectrum, which the FCC failed to sell in auctions that ended in March 2008. The FCC had hoped to sell the D block for a combined commercial and public safety network, but the agency failed to receive the minimum bid it had asked for.

“The American people deserve to have the best and most innovative uses of wireless networks anywhere,” Rockefeller said. “And they deserve to know that our first responders have access to the airwaves they need when tragedy strikes.”

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has called for the agency to re-auction the D block spectrum, but senior agency officials said Wednesday they supported Rockefeller’s proposed legislation.

The Rockefeller plan is “a step forward in getting the [emergency] network built, especially funding,” one senior FCC official said.

Rockefeller’s announcement means “today is a big day for public safety,” a second FCC official said.

Several public safety groups have called on the FCC and Congress to turn the D block over to them.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which has raised concerns about spectrum incentive auctions, did not have a comment on the Rockefeller proposal. The NAB has questioned whether the incentive auctions would be voluntary, and the group has said that TV stations can redeploy currently unused spectrum for mobile television services.

The NAB praised a bill introduced Monday by Senators John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, that would require that the FCC and the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) measure spectrum use and occupancy rates. 

“Rather than focusing primarily on the reallocation of licensed spectrum, Senators Kerry and Snowe deserve credit for their holistic approach to identifying all avenues for spectrum efficiency in both the public and private sectors,” the trade group said in a statement. “While NAB will continue to oppose new spectrum fees on free and local broadcasting, we intend to work closely with Congress and regulators to ensure a policy that affords America the finest broadcasting and broadband technology in the world.”

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