Boehner Takes Aim at Incentive Auctions, Net Neutrality in Speech to Broadcasters

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House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has once again reiterated his party's support for television broadcasters in their ongoing legislative and regulatory fight to maintain spectrum holdings.

In remarks delivered during the annual National Religious Broadcasters convention Feb. 27, Boehner blasted the Federal Communications Commission for attempting to reclaim broadcast TV spectrum through so-called “incentive auctions,” in which television broadcasters, who license spectrum through the FCC, would relinquish some of it back to the government in exchange for a share of the auction proceeds.

The FCC, which manages all commercial and public radio spectrum in the United States, does not currently have the statutory authority to divvy up proceeds of an auction among private entities; all auction revenue must be deposited into the Treasury.

“The last thing we need, in my view, is the FCC … potentially running roughshod over local broadcasters who have been serving their communities with free content for decades,” Boehner said.

His comments come as Republican leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have expressed increasing caution about incentive auctions, citing the 108 MHz of spectrum already returned by the broadcasters when the transition to digital television was completed in June 2009.

For its official position, the broadcasting industry does not oppose incentive spectrum auctions, so long as they are “truly voluntary.”

“Right now, freedom and free expression are under attack by a power structure in Washington populated with regulators who have never set foot inside a radio station or a television studio,” Boehner said.

FCC 'Creeping Into Free Market.'

Not surprisingly, Boehner devoted part of his speech to castigating the FCC for its new rules for net neutrality.

“We see this threat in how the FCC is creeping further into the free market by trying to regulate the Internet,” he said. “'Network neutrality,' they call it. It's a series of regulations that empower the federal bureaucracy to regulate internet content and viewpoint discrimination. The rules are written vaguely, of course, to allow the FCC free reign.”

The spending bill that passed the House last month included an amendment that would prohibit the FCC from using any federal funds to implement the rules.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, introduced that amendment as part of a multi-pronged GOP strategy to beat back the rules. A day earlier, Republicans in the House and Senate introduced a “resolution of disapproval” under the Congressional Review Act, through which Congress can rescind any agency rule by passing a resolution of disapproval with an up-or-down vote .

In his speech, Boehner also committed to efforts to block the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcast licensees to provide balanced coverage of issues of public importance.

He noted that Walden has partnered with another former broadcaster, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), to introduce legislation to help keep the airwaves free.

“I expect the House to act on this measure as well,” Boehner said.

By Paul Barbagallo