Congress passes bill that opens up TV spectrum

Tech groups praise a compromise that allows the FCC to set aside spectrum for unlicensed uses

The U.S. Congress has passed legislation that will allow the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to set aside a piece of unlicensed spectrum before new mobile spectrum auctions, despite opposition from some lawmakers who wanted all the available spectrum to be auctioned.

The spectrum provisions were attached to a bill, approved Friday by the U.S. House of Representative and Senate, that will extend payroll tax breaks.

Unlicensed spectrum is used for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth services, and many technology companies have been eying unlicensed spectrum in current television spectrum for so-called long-distance super Wi-Fi service. The spectrum provisions in the payroll tax bill will allow the FCC to conduct so-called incentive auctions, which would give TV stations that voluntarily give up spectrum part of the proceeds from an auction.

The bill passed Friday also would give a 10MHz block of spectrum -- the so-called D block in the 700Mhz band -- to public safety agencies for use in a nationwide mobile broadband network for police, firefighters and other emergency response agencies. The bill also provides an estimated US$7 billion from the proceeds of incentive auctions to build the nationwide network.

An alterative bill that was introduced by Republican Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, called the Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum Act, would have required all new spectrum to be auctioned and would have prohibited the FCC from excluding carriers from bidding on spectrum for competitive reasons.

The provision barring the FCC from excluding bidders survived in the final version of the payroll tax bill that Senate and House negotiators agreed to Thursday.

Walden's bill would have prohibited the FCC from attaching net neutrality provisions to future wireless auctions. That provision was stripped out of the bill passed Friday.

Several tech and consumer groups praised Congress for allowing the FCC to set aside unlicensed spectrum before new auctions.

"Congress' rejection of a requirement that the FCC auction all newly available spectrum, including unlicensed spectrum, underscores the general understanding that unlicensed spectrum is vital to our Internet economy," the Wireless Innovation Alliance, an unlicensed spectrum advocacy group, said in a statement.

CTIA, a trade group representing mobile carriers, said the spectrum provisions in the bill were "a resounding victory for consumers and the American economy." The payroll tax bill will provide a significant amount of new spectrum for mobile voice and broadband service, the group said.

The spectrum provisions in the bill will be good for consumers and the mobile broadband industry, said Public Knowledge, a digital rights group.

The spectrum provisions mean that "all the people building and deploying the new super WiFi devices can keep doing so," Harold Feld, Public Knowledge's legal director, wrote in a blog post. "It's a good day in policy land where everyone can claim some kind of win."

The deal didn't win universal praise, however. The incentive auctions won't give mobile carriers enough spectrum to meet the skyrocketing demand for bandwidth from smartphone users, said Richard Bennett, senior research fellow and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-focused think tank.

Congress and the FCC will be "lucky" to get 60MHz of spectrum from the incentive auctions, he said. Mobile carriers have called for the FCC to free up 500MHz of spectrum, but TV stations and U.S. agencies will continue to hang on to spectrum they don't need, he said.

"There's a lot of congratulations in Washington today over the fine compromise that allowed incentive auctions to finally go forward, and half a loaf is certainly better than none," Bennett added. "But we can't keep doing spectrum allocation this way. The set-asides for defense and broadcasting aren't defensible and we need a more rational approach to providing the greatest good to the greatest number of spectrum users."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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