Pair of House bills unveiled

A proposal to reshuffle the broadcast airwaves to free up more spectrum space for wireless and mobile devices could move forward in Congress this week.

House lawmakers unveiled two dueling bills that would allow the government to incentive auctions in which stations can voluntarily give up spectrum and share in some of the proceeds with the government when the airwave is put up for sale to the highest bidder. The idea of such “incentive” auctions was proposed as part of one of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s signature initiatives, the National Broadband Plan, designed to greatly expand access and reach of the Internet and wireless services in the U.S.

Broadcasters have been wary of the idea of an incentive auction, warning that, even though stations could choose on their own whether to give up their spectrum space, they could still face being placed in different spots in the channel lineup as the spectrum is “repacked” to make room for wireless space.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon), chairman of the House suncommittee on Communications and Technology, unveiled a bill on Tuesday that includes conditions in which broadcasters and cable systems would be able to draw on up to $3 billion in relocation costs if they are forced to move. The FCC also would have to “make all reasonable efforts” to preserve a stations’ reach, and prohibits the FCC from forcing a station to move from UHF TO VHF. The VHF band is less desirable for delivery of digital services.

Gordon Smith, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, called Walden’s bill “a major step forward” in ensuring that stations are protected. “Our position remains unchanged since this debate began: NAB has no quarrel with voluntary spectrum auctions so long as non-volunteer broadcasters and our viewers are not punished.”

Meanwhile, House Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committeem including Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) introduced their own version of the legislation, which also calls for voluntary auctions that include safeguards for broadcasters who do not choose to give up their airwaves. It also includes provisions that allow stations to recoup the costs of relocation to additional channels, as well as other restrictions on the FCC’s moves.

The NAB was still reviewing the Democrats’ proposal and had no immediate comment.

Walden has scheduled a markup on his legislation on Thursday.

Both bills call for establishing a wireless broadband public safety network.

The Senate Commerce Committee already has passed legislation that includes provisions for voluntary incentive auctions.

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