In what appears to be an attempt at a political compromise, a pair of House lawmakers introduced on Thursday a bill that would pave the way for federal regulators to shift wireless spectrum for mobile broadband networks while protecting the rights of current license holders.
The Voluntary Incentive Auction Act, backed by Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to auction off portions of spectrum currently occupied by TV broadcasters, offering them a cut of the proceeds in exchange for giving up their licenses.
But the bill (available in PDF format here) would bar the agency from enacting punitive measures that would force or coerce TV stations to relinquish their spectrum.
"Our goal is to ensure that any incentive auctions the Federal Communications Commission conducts are truly voluntary," Boucher, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Internet subcommittee, said in a statement.
The FCC had proposed the incentive auctions as a recommendation in its national broadband plan, which called for freeing up 500 MHz of spectrum over the next decade to help wireless carriers build out the capacity of their networks to handle the proliferation of mobile Web traffic.
Of that, the commission recommended reclaiming 120 MHz from broadcasters, raising alarm and setting in motion a lobbying push at the principal industry trade organization, the National Association of Broadcasters.
But the NAB reacted favorably to today's legislation, praising Boucher and Stearns for including language that would protect its members' spectrum licenses.
"As NAB has previously articulated, we have no quarrel with incentive auctions that are truly voluntary, and the Boucher/Stearns bill is a clear step in the right direction," NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton said in a statement. "We look forward to working with Congress as it lays the foundation for sound spectrum policy that recognizes the enduring value of free and local broadcasting."
When it issued the broadband plan, the FCC acknowledged that the proposal to initiate incentive auctions would require an act of Congress. A source in the broadcasting industry had signaled that it would lobby to defeat any measure that was not purely voluntary.
CTIA, the wireless trade association whose members would be the principal beneficiaries of the auctions, lauded Boucher and Stearns in a statement for taking steps to address the "looming spectrum crisis," but did not address the legislation specifically.
A spokeswoman for the trade association declined to comment beyond the statement, and members of CTIA's government relations staff were not immediately available to comment.
The bill would direct the FCC to establish rules for the auctions and the revenue sharing within one year of passage.