Congress Friday moved swiftly to pass compromise payroll tax break/unemployment benefit legislation that gives the Federal Communications Commission the ability to reclaim and auction broadcast spectrum.
The legislation will also create a second DTV transition as the FCC moves and repacks the TV stations to prepare the spectrum for auction.
The bill passed the House 293 to 132; it passed in the Senate 60-36.
Passage in the House came after numerous shout-outs for the incentive auction package from its House Energy & Commerce Committee backers. The Senate moved to a vote almost immediately after the House vote, and without debate.
Some Democrats in the House voted against the bill because of the requirement that future federal civilian employees help pay for unemployment benefit extension with a boost to pension contributions. The spectrum auction proceeds - projected at $15 billion -- are the other "payfor" for those unemployment benefits. Former Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) said he voted against it because there had not been enough time to vet it, which violated the Republican pledge not to pass bills that had been introduced with insufficient time for study.
House Communications chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), whose House version of auction legislation provided the basis of the bill, said the legislation would free up hundreds of thousands of jobs and allow for the build out of advanced wireless and an emergency broadband communications network.
He emphasized that the auction was voluntary and would protect broadcasters and their viewers--bill language requires the FCC to make best efforts to protect the coverage areas and interference protections of the broadcasters who don't give up spectrum.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Communications Subcommittee, said the incentive auction legislation would usher in more competition and innovation and insure world-leading wireless infrastructure and use of TV band spectrum for unlicensed wireless.
While the FCC is expected to move quickly to come up with auction rules, it will still likely be several years before any spectrum is reclaimed or repacked. The bill sets a 10-year deadline for the auctions -- one, a reverse auction, to compensate the broadcasters who give up spectrum, the other to auction that spectrum on the open market. But Blair Levin, architect of the FCC National Broadband Plan that proposed the auctions, said it could happen as swifly as four or five years.
Levin is concerned that bill provides too much direction, and too little flexibility for the FCC to use its auction expertise. He would have preferred simply giving the FCC the authority to compensate broadcasters, which it currently lacks, and let the commission fill in the rest, particularly given the difficulty in predicting changes in technology that could affect a spectrum auction.
Broadcasters have said that they are OK with the auctions so long as they are voluntary and leave a viable service for those who choose to stay in the business.