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House panel approves spectrum inventory bill

Legislation designed to avert a looming communications spectrum crisis that could derail the FCC's ambitious plan for nationwide broadband connectivity received swift approval Thursday by a House panel.

The measure, passed by voice vote after being amended by House Energy and Commerce Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher, D-Va., would require the FCC and National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is part of the Commerce Department, to make a thorough inventory of the nation's communications spectrum.

The agencies would report their findings to Congress and recommend which, if any, of the least-used blocks of spectrum can be reallocated for commercial use.

"As more and more Americans use data-intensive smart phones and as services like mobile video emerge, the demand for spectrum to support these applications and devices will grow dramatically," Boucher said. "Additional spectrum for commercial wireless services will be needed and it will be needed soon."

His manager's amendment made several technical changes but also gave both agencies one year, instead of the bill's original six-month deadline, to conduct their spectrum review.

The subcommittee also approved by voice vote a related bill, sponsored by Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., that would streamline the process of shifting spectrum from the federal government to the commercial sector. Boucher said the bill is needed to grant the winners of a 2006 spectrum auction full use of the frequencies by removing federal occupants that remain in the band.

The two measures now move to the full House Energy and Commerce panel for consideration, with Boucher again seeking quick action.

The spectrum inventory legislation is caught up in the increasingly heated debate in policy circles over whether the FCC should reallocate digital television airwaves to wireless carriers to help the agency meet the goals of its national broadband plan, slated to be presented to Congress March 17.

Broadcasters warn that such a move could mark the end of free high-definition television signals -- a claim the FCC disputes.

During Thursday's markup, lawmakers dodged this controversial topic, though Boucher has previously expressed opposition to reallocating TV airwaves and argued that a comprehensive inventory is the best alternative.

"To me, there are opportunities here for win-wins," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told reporters Wednesday when asked if he plans to take airwaves away from broadcasters. He described remedying the impending spectrum shortfall as "a national competitiveness issue."

The inventory bill won endorsements from key Republicans, including House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Communications Subcommittee ranking member Cliff Stearns, R-Fla. Stearns hailed it as a "critical first step."

Stearns added, "The bottom line is that we need to know who uses which spectrum bands and the purposes for which they use them." A companion bill sponsored by Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., is pending before his panel.

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