Senate Commerce Advances Spectrum Reallocation Bill

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By Lydia Beyoud

March 3 — The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved a bill by voice vote March 3 that would shift 255 megahertz of government-held spectrum into private hands by 2020 and lay the groundwork for the next generation of wireless communication technologies.

The MOBILE Now bill (S. 2555), by panel Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), was approved as modified by a manager's amendment . Eleven other amendments deemed noncontroversial by ranking member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who co-sponsored the bill, were also adopted.

Thune told reporters after the markup that he planned to seek fast Senate floor action. He added that he hoped Senate passage of the bill would provide momentum for the House to pass similar legislation.

“They may have a different idea about how they want to do this and we'll see if we can work out the differences in a conference committee,” Thune told reporters.

He added that with the “big universe” of agencies, industries and communities impacted by the spectrum bill, “I would hope that at first opportunity they’ll move something that would enable us to get something on the president’s desk. We think it’s that important.”

Unlicensed Spectrum

The spate of amendments made to the bill include one from Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that would require that 100 MHz of spectrum shared or reallocated from federal users to private industry be allocated to licensed users, and another 100 MHz of the spectrum be allocated to unlicensed users.

The quartet of senators modified their amendment early March 3 to ensure that the 100 MHz designated for exclusive licensed use would be subject to the Federal Communications Commission's regulatory purview to implement flexible licensing, including consideration of continued use of such spectrum by incumbent federal or non-federal users in designated geographic areas.

An amendment by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), along with Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), would address what a Republican aide told Bloomberg BNA was a marketplace inequity between the majority of states that collect taxes and fees for prepaid wireless services at the point of sale, and the remainder that do not. It would allow companies to designate a collection agent in a state to collect certain taxes and fees from residents of the state purchasing prepaid wireless telecom services.

If enacted, Moran's amendment would impact all four major national carriers—AT&T Inc., Sprint Corp., T-Mobile US Inc. and Verizon Wireless—as well as smaller providers that offer prepaid services.

Broadcaster Relocation Fund

Moran also offered then withdraw an amendment that would increase funding to reimburse TV broadcasters for their post-spectrum auction relocation costs from $1 billion to $2.75 billion, and to extend the reimbursement and relocation period to Sept. 30, 2022.

Moran said he would be the first to admit that “this legislation is not necessary now,” but that the issue would become more pressing after the FCC wraps up the first-of-its-kind spectrum auction, which seeks to transfer airwaves held by broadcasters to the mobile wireless industry.

Broadcasters have been seeking an extension of the fund for months, and have also won the support of Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on the issue.

Rural broadcasters could be negatively impacted by a shortage of reimbursement funds or time as the mobile industry focuses on shifting spectrum in more urban markets where the additional capacity is needed to support high consumer demand, Moran said.

DIGIT Act for April Markup

A bill introduced March 1 to promote the Internet of Things could be marked up in April, Thune told reporters after the markup session.

“We made a commitment to Sen. Fischer to try and get that done,” Thune said. “We'll be working on putting it together.”

The Developing Innovation and Growing the Internet of Things (DIGIT) Act (S. 2607) by Fischer and co-sponsored by Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Booker and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), would focus on spectrum planning and interagency coordination . Fischer offered, then withdrew bill text as an amendment to Thune's bill during the markup session.

Key to 5G

The spectrum to be released to the mobile wireless industry, if Thune's bill is enacted, is expected to power the fifth generation, or 5G network to support a far more connected world.

Though an ecosystem of connected devices ranging from home appliances to agricultural sensors to health monitors is already flourishing, the higher data throughput speeds and lower latency expected of 5G technology is intended to power the Internet of Things, with billions of devices communicating with one another.

Far more spectrum will be needed to reach that stage, industry groups have said. The bill “will help ensure the future of wireless connectivity by securing large swaths of additional spectrum for commercial use by 2020,” Consumer Technology Association President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Shapiro said by e-mail.

There's also broad consensus within Congress, the industry and the administration that repurposing more spectrum for wireless broadband is necessary to help the U.S. lead in 5G innovations in a global market. CTIA—The Wireless Association President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker said via e-mail the Thune legislation should help achieve that aim. “The bill reported today draws on good ideas from both sides of the political spectrum to advance America’s continued leadership in the wireless marketplace,” she said.

Consumer groups also hailed the bill, particularly provisions included to promote unlicensed spectrum allocations. “Senator Schatz deserves great credit for his tireless leadership on the unlicensed provisions, as do Sens. Moran, Booker and Gardner for their amendments specifying that an additional 100 megahertz or more of unlicensed spectrum must be allocated,” said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

However, lawmakers have significantly more work to do to hammer out the details in a complicated scheme of spectrum sharing with incumbents such as satellite users and federal and state government agencies.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine in Washington at