Payroll package strikes spectrum deal

The payroll-tax package would raise $15 billion for the budget, provide more spectrum for wireless broadband, and help public-safety officials build a national broadband network.

House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., who was also a conferee and authored the House's spectrum bill, said the deal's spectrum auctions should generate about $15 billion for the payroll-tax extension.

"Nobody got everything they wanted," Walden said. "But I think we got a good product that ... should achieve ... good policy for the country to build out and technologically advance; [it also should] generate some revenue for the government and an incredible number of jobs."

The payroll negotiators seemingly settled many policy disputes that bedeviled the crafting of bipartisan spectrum legislation.

Public-safety officials would get much of what they demanded, including the "D-block" spectrum swath on which their broadband network will be built without having to give back any spectrum they now use.

The deal also would allow $7 billion in incentive-auction proceeds to go toward building the public-safety network. It would establish a First Responder Network Authority, overseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, to help create the public-safety network and gather input from local, state, and federal officials.

The public-safety network was a top priority for Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and will fulfill a key recommendation of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Communication difficulties hampered emergency response in New York and led to the deaths of hundreds of first responders. "First responders will be able to do their job better, will be more safe doing it, and be more efficient in doing it," Rockefeller said.

Broadcasters are satisfied that stations opting out of selling airwaves at incentive auctions would be protected and would get financial help if they are forced to move to another section of the TV band.

Broadcasters who do sell would retain some auction proceeds as determined by the Federal Communications Commission.

Another key issue concerned the fate of unlicensed spectrum.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., the ranking member on Walden's subcommittee, pushed to ensure that the FCC could set aside more spectrum for unlicensed uses such as Wi-Fi. Although the deal would not set aside a chunk of spectrum for unlicensed uses, it would allow for such uses in the "guard bands" between the swaths of spectrum that will be auctioned to wireless providers.

"I think today is a victory for entrepreneurs and small businesses around the country because the agreement reached [on Wednesday night] is going to ensure that the FCC has the flexibility to preserve and promote unlicensed use in the television bands," Eshoo said.

The spectrum deal modified a provision in Walden's bill that would have restricted the FCC from limiting who can participate in the FCC auctions. Under the payroll deal, the FCC would generally be barred from keeping certain wireless companies from bidding, but the commission would be allowed to launch an open rule-making that could eventually limit the participants in some auctions.

The FCC's general-auction authority expires at the end of September. Under the package, that power would be extended until 2022.