Federal spectrum reallocation included in budget deal

A proposed two-year budget plan would use projected funds from federal spectrum auctions as a way to offset long-term spending.

Shutterstock image (by Pavel Ignatov): wireless, radio icon.

(Pavel Ignatov / Shutterstock)

The budget bill making its way through Congress would not only provide federal agencies with funding for two years and forestall the threat of a default on the national debt, it would also create a plan for reallocating and auctioning more federal wireless spectrum to commercial providers.

The Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2015, a section of the deal, calls on the secretary of Commerce and the Federal Communications Commission to identify 30 MHz of federally owned wireless communications spectrum and auction it off for commercial or shared use by 2024.

The auction is projected to offset the cost of the budget deal by $4.42 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Agencies would be compensated for 110 percent of the costs incurred in relinquishing spectrum and relocating their activities. It remains to be seen whether that incentive is enough to encourage agencies to clear spectrum.

New legislation to expand agencies' possible uses of spectrum relocation funds could be in the offing, said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He said the spectrum measures in the budget deal are a "first installment" and to expect more activity in the coming weeks.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called the spectrum bill "a good start" but said he wants more legislative activity to clear spectrum.

"We should continue our bipartisan work in this committee to authorize more spectrum auctions going forward," Pallone said during an Oct. 28 hearing.

One recent proposal, the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act, would give agencies the option of using the funds they receive for clearing spectrum to offset budget cuts under sequestration. The push is part of a broader Obama administration effort to reallocate as much as 500 MHz of public and private spectrum for wireless broadband. A recent auction of 65 MHz of spectrum raised a staggering $44 billion. Sales of spectrum have traditionally brought in billions of dollars for the federal government and allowed commercial providers to expand their services.

Commercial wireless providers have been clamoring for more capacity for mobile broadband services and the growing Internet of Things, and they were enthusiastic about the pending legislation. But many experts say it won't be enough to satisfy a ravenous public appetite for wireless broadband services.

Meredith Attwell Baker, a former FCC commissioner who is now president and CEO of the wireless industry trade association CTIA, said, "As other countries around the world are allocating large paired blocks of spectrum for future broadband needs, it is disappointing that we were not able to do more now to meet Americans' demands for 5G and the Internet of Things."

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