Warner introduces bill to authorize spectrum auctions

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., introduced legislation Friday that would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to hold incentive auctions to free up wireless spectrum.

The auctions would allow license holders to return underused spectrum to the government, freeing the space for other wireless uses.

"By providing an incentive for license holders to sell their spectrum back to the government, we'll be able to create new efficiencies in spectrum use," Warner said. "By all indications, we're facing a dramatic spectrum crunch over the next decade, and this legislation is a step toward promoting more innovation and creating more economic opportunities as Americans increasingly rely on mobile technology."

Federal officials have estimated that such auctions could generation more than $100 billion in revenue over the next five years. What to do with that money, however, promises to be a divisive political question, said Paul Glenchur, a senior telecommunications analyst for Potomac Research Group.

"The debate will be between those who want to use any extra money to decrease deficits, and those who support using it to fund new programs," he said.

While the bill does not specify how the money would be used, Warner said the funds could go toward a combination of causes, including deficit reduction, expanding access to high-speed Internet, or establishing a nation-wide broadband network for emergency responders.

The National Broadband Plan calls for the FCC to free up 500 megahertz of new spectrum for wireless broadband within five years, a plan that has made current broadcasters, who own the license to much of that spectrum, sweat.

Warner said this bill is just one element in his effort to reform spectrum policy. He also plans on introducing legislation to "encourage greater efficiencies in government uses of spectrum as well as creating incentives for other spectrum licensees to vacate underutilized spectrum."

In a letter sent to the FCC Tuesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers said they are not opposed to spectrum auctions as long as they are truly voluntary, a stance that mirrors statements made by the National Association of Broadcasters.

"NAB has no quarrel with incentive auctions that are truly voluntary," said the association's president, former Sen. Gordon Smith, in response to President Obama's budget, which endorsed incentive auctions. "We will oppose government-mandated digital TV service degradations that would result in a loss of service for the tens of millions of viewers who watch free and local broadcasting every day."