Spectrum

House bill would compensate agencies for giving up spectrum

US Capitol

Federal agencies who relinquish or share spectrum as part of a government-wide plan to revert coveted bandwidth to the private sector for mobile broadband would receive compensation under a bill approved Dec. 11 by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The measure would allow agencies to reap some of the benefits from spectrum sales. The bill would create a fund to be administered by the Office of Management and Budget in consultation with the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, the Commerce Department component that manages the federal spectrum portfolio. Agencies would be able to use funds under the bill for sequestration offset or to pay for spectrum relocation costs if they are moving operations to other federally held bands.

The move is meant as a carrot to incentivize agencies to relinquish spectrum as part of a plan to free up 500 megahertz for commercial use by 2020.

“This bill would encourage additional spectrum, a necessary component for the advancement of American innovation, to be made available for commercial use,” bill sponsor Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) said in a statement.

Newly installed Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler endorsed the plan at a Dec. 12 hearing of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee. “I’m a believer that by the time you peel everything away, it comes down to economics no matter who you are,” Wheeler said. Wheeler couldn’t say whether the funding stream identified in the bill would be sufficient to motivate agencies to give up spectrum. “What’s important is that the concept has been developed. It would seem to me that once the concept is codified, then making sure that the incentives are adequate is frankly the easier lift,” he said.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told the panel that the legislation is “a good starting point for conversation,” and that by some measures federal agencies have effective “veto control” of 60 percent of the airwaves. “Right now they don’t have structural incentives to be efficient with it,” she said.

The Obama administration is pursuing a mixed strategy of clearing and sharing federal spectrum, and efforts are underway to spur development in the private sector of technologies that allow multiple users to operate in the same spectrum without overlap or interference. Tom Power, the U.S. deputy CTO for telecommunications, wrote in a Dec. 12 blog post that the administration was “encouraged by lawmakers’ attention to this important issue.”

The matter is taking on urgency because the government is facing a February 2015 deadline to auction and license some key swaths of spectrum, including the 2155-2180 MHz band. This band can be paired with the 1755-1780 band, which is controlled by the Department of Defense. The Pentagon agreed to move some key operations out of that band in a deal that was endorsed by the NTIA in late November.

In the hearing, Wheeler said he hoped that the auction could be concluded by September of next year.

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