Spectrum auction plan moves to Congress

Broadcaster drop opposition to FCC effort to boost wireless biz

The long-in-the-works proposal in which stations would voluntarily give up their spectrum and put it up for auction for wireless use is poised to finally move forward in Congress.

The incentive auction proposal, intended to free up 120 MHz of spectrum, is part of legislation to extend payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits.

The auctions are expected to bring in about $15 billion in revenue, part of which will be devoted to building out a public safety network. And broadcasters stand to share in some of the proceeds for giving up their share of the airwaves.

Stations initially expressed skepticism over the proposal when it was included in the FCC’s National Broadband Plan in 2010, worried that broadcasters would feel compelled to give up their airwaves or that it would diminish the signals of channels in some markets that chose to stay in business.

But Gordon Smith, the president and CEO of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, appeared to be satisfied that the legislation contained safeguards. “NAB salutes the tireless efforts of Congress to ensure that local broadcasters have a vibrant and robust future,” he said in a statement.

The intent of the incentive auctions is to free up space and make it available to wireless providers facing ever-increasing demands from consumers.

The legislation does contain provisions for how the FCC can conduct the auctions, such as if it wanted to direct sale to a certain type of bidder. If it wants to place restrictions on them, it will first have to do so through a notice and comment period.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said that he was “pleased that Congress has recognized the vital importance of freeing up more spectrum for mobile broadband,” but said that the legislation “could limit the FCC’s ability to maximize the amount and benefits of recovered spectrum.”

But Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon) said in a statement that “competition should determine winners and losers, not the FCC.”