It looks like the Federal Communications Commission will have to wait a while longer before taking spectrum back from broadcasters.
Spectrum incentive auctions were taken out of a Senate version of a two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday and other must-pass legislation Friday night in negotiations to get a bill both parties could sign on to. That is the version of the bill that is expected to pass the Senate (it did on Saturday, 89-10) and House before both exit for the holidays.
Republicans and Democrats had both been trying to pass some version of a bill that gives the FCC the ability to pay broadcasters for voluntarily turning in spectrum for re-auctioning for wireless broadband. That was expected to raise enough to cover those payments, plus pay to move the broadcasters who didn't sell closer together to free up those blocks of spectrum, as well as a new emergency broadband network, with $15 billion or so left over for deficit reduction. But they could not agree on a version that passed muster with both sides.
The failure of that effort likely means no spectrum incentive auction authority for the FCC until at least February, when the bill expires and a larger bill with "pay fors" like spectrum auctions should be back in play.
While both Democrats and Republicans backed auctions, the Republicans wanted to limit the FCC's ability to put conditions on auction winners and on how the commission set up the auctions, while Dems saw that as protecting incumbents and tying the FCC's hands on insuring open access to that spectrum.
"I'm deeply disappointed that measures to create a first responder communications network were not included in the larger year-end package," said Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va), who had been pushing incentive auction authority primarily because it also included allocating and paying for an emergency broadband communications network that has been on Congress' to-do list since 9/11.
"Our police officers, firefighters, and emergency personnel across America need to be able to rely on a nationwide, interoperable communications network when the unimaginable happens," he said in a statement. "Although we didn't get this done within today's agreement, I intend to push hard in the coming weeks to work out a suitable compromise with the House. Build out of a public safety communications network is in our national interest. We cannot afford further inaction."
"NAB's position remains the same," said a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. "We're not opposed to spectrum auctions that are truly voluntary, so long as non-volunteer stations and the tens of millions of viewers that they serve are held harmless."