Early Obama Broadband Proposal Reviews Generally Positive on Wireless Expansion

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Early reviews of the broadband-related provisions in President Obama's $447 billion jobs bill have been positive, as members of Congress and industry lobbyists reiterated support for their overarching goals: To nearly double the wireless spectrum available for mobile broadband and to create, for the first time, a nationwide, interoperable, public safety broadband network.

The legislation draws heavily from Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV's (D-W.Va.) public safety spectrum bill (S. 911), which cleared the Senate Commerce Committee in June and is now awaiting floor action.

In a statement issued Sept. 12, Rockefeller lauded the president for including his proposals in the final, 155-page omnibus package.

“Investment in this sector can create hundreds of thousands of jobs, help first responders and generate billions of dollars for deficit reduction,” Rockefeller said. “It's a win-win-win proposal. And I look forward to working with my colleagues to make this happen.”

Obama's jobs bill would not only allocate the 700 MHz band D Block for the building of a nationwide emergency communications network, but would also authorize the Federal Communications Commission to hold voluntary incentive auctions of spectrum, in which television broadcasters, who license spectrum through the FCC, could release some of it back to the government in exchange for a share of the auction proceeds. With an eye on deficit reduction, the administration estimates that incentive auctions could raise as much as $28 billion.

The D Block would be paired with 10 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band currently licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corporation, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) designated by the FCC as the official licensee for the public safety's broadband spectrum in the band. Like S. 911, Obama's legislation would replace the PSST with a “Public Safety Broadband Corporation” as the new licensee.

Auction Funding to Defray Costs.

Under the legislation, some of the money raised through incentive auctions—$10 billion—would help defray the costs of building the nation's first truly interoperable broadband network for public safety, an unfulfilled recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. The remainder—$18 billion—would go toward incentivizing broadcasters and deficit reduction.

The legislation also permits the FCC to hold more than one incentive auction, a provision that will be met with opposition from broadcasters, industry sources told BNA.

Broadcasters prefer that any legislation allow for only one incentive auction. The FCC does not currently have the statutory authority to divvy up proceeds of an auction among private entities; all auction revenue must be deposited in the Treasury.

Specifically, under the legislation, by Jan. 31, 2016, the commission would be required to conduct auctions of licenses covering spectrum between the frequencies of 1915 MHz and 1920 MHz; 1995 MHz and 2000 MHz; 2020 MHz and 2025 MHz; 2155 MHz and 2175 MHz; 2175 MHz and 2180 MHz; and at least 25 megahertz of spectrum between the frequencies of 1755 MHz and 1850 MHz.

The goal is free up 500 MHz for mobile broadband uses over the next decade.

Heeding the concerns of broadcasters, Obama's bill would also create an “incentive auction relocation fund,” which would cover the costs of relocating TV stations to a different spectrum channel or geographic location following an incentive auction, including costs of new equipment, installation, and construction.

Turning to the subject of public safety communications, the FCC, in Obama's bill, would be directed to allow public safety entities to “roam” onto commercial networks with priority access in emergencies if (1) the public safety entity equipment is technically compatible with the commercial network; (2) the commercial network is reasonably compensated; (3) such access does not “preempt, terminate or degrade” all existing voice conversations or data sessions.

During the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical workers experienced widespread communications difficulties because they were not using the same radio equipment on the same spectrum bands.

House Commerce GOP Leaders Could Pose Opposition.

Overall, Obama's proposals, which have been embraced by both Democrats and Republicans, are certain to face opposition from two powerful GOP members: House Energy and Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and the committee's Communications Subcommittee Chairman, Greg Walden (R-Ore.).

Both Upton and Walden oppose allocating the D Block for the building of a nationwide emergency communications network. And while both Upton and Walden support the general concept of incentive auctions, they disagree with the administration and their Senate counterparts on how to execute it.

“The two sides will have to come to some of kind of agreement soon, because of the urgent need for spectrum for broadband,” said one communications industry source.

Another source who spoke to BNA on the condition of anonymity said the “super committee” is also likely to take a “hard look” at Obama's spectrum- and broadband-related proposals.

Two chairmen of legislative panels with jurisdiction over spectrum issues are among the lawmakers who have been named to the 12-member Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction: Upton and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Commerce subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet.

With the wireless industry's perspective, Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association, said that while the trade group is still reviewing the proposed legislation with its members, it appreciates the administration's “continued support for spectrum auctions.”

In an e-mailed statement, the National Association of Broadcasters said the industry has “never opposed incentive auctions that are truly voluntary” and that its support for legislation is contingent on assurances that the FCC “can't mandate a loss of local TV service to millions of viewers, and that broadcasters are held harmless if they choose to remain in business.”

By Paul Barbagallo