Kerry-Snowe Bill Would Yield Cash For Spectrum

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Senate communications subcommittee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and senior Commerce Committee member Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced a bill that would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to give broadcasters and other spectrum license holders a share of proceeds from any spectrum they relinquish.

According to the bill text: "[I]f the commission determines that it is consistent with the public interest in utilization of the spectrum for a licensee to relinquish some or all of its licensed spectrum usage rights in order to permit the assignment of new initial licenses or the allocation of spectrum for unlicensed use subject to new service rules, the proceeds from the use of a competitive bidding system under this subsection may be shared, in an amount or percentage determined in the discretion of the commission, with any licensee who agreed to participate in relinquishing such auction usage rights."

The FCC had proposed encouraging broadcasters to give up 120 Mhz of spectrum via incentive auctions, but needs Congress' approval.

The bill also directs the FCC to collect a spectrum fee "based on the fair-market commercial value of that spectrum and the public interest of the service the spectrum is being used for."

The auction and fee authority is part of a larger spectrum inventory bill that would give the government two years to report back to Congress on how efficiently spectrum is being used, but a year to identify which spectrum is "most feasible for sharing, reclamation, temporary assignment, or "layering," all ways to free up spectrum for advanced services like mobile broadband.

A sharing and re-use pilot program would be mandated within a year.

"We can and should know how our spectrum is being used and do more to encourage more efficient and productive use," Kerry said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the Administration and the communications community to move forward with this important legislation."

A spectrum inventory bill passed earlier this year in the House, but has not moved in the Senate and got somewhat superseded by an Obama administration announcement backing and advancing the FCC's spectrum reclamation effort for wireless broadband. That bill did not include an auction authority provision.

The White House on June 28 endorsed the FCC's proposal to free up 500 MHz of spectrum from government and commercial users for wireless broadband and other uses, and added momentum by calling for a spectrum inventory that would not have to await congressional action, and setting an October 2010 deadline (or less than four months) to hear back on where that 500 MHz should come from.

The new bill, dubbed the Spectrum Measurement and Policy Reform Act, which was introduced on the assumption the House bill was superseded by the administration directive, is meant to complement the administration-backed inventory by requiring the FCC and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration to measure how efficiently license holders identified in the inventory are using their spectrum with an eye toward reallocation or sharing, as the FCC has proposed.

Public Knowledge, a public-interest group backing the sale of spectrum for wireless technologies, called the bill a good idea. "The bill would help the government figure out what spectrum is being used by whom, require more flexible use of spectrum through sharing and reuse and give the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) much-needed authority to free up private and public sector spectrum by sharing auction proceeds with the current holders of spectrum." PK president Gigi Sohn said in a statement.

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