Senate Committee gives momentum to wireless auction bill

The Senate Commerce Committee approved a wireless spectrum bill that aims to create a network for emergency first responders and the availability of more airwaves for commercial carriers.

The approval is one more step in what is likely to be a long process to turning the bill into law. But it was a significant event that provides momentum to a near decade-long goal of creating a public safety network, analysts said.

The bill, introduced by John “Jay” Rockefeller (D-Wa.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), was approved 21-4 in the committee and now advances to the full Senate floor for vote.

Analysts say the committee’s action was significant and helps further President Obama’s complicated and ambitious plan to improve public safety communications while raising billions of dollars through auctions of television airwaves for wireless service providers.

Specifically, the bill calls for the following:

· Allocate 10 megahertz of spectrum, known as the “D-block,” to public safety.

· Give the FCC authority to create standards for public safety officials when they aren’t using the network to lease capacity to commercial carriers.

· Give the FCC with authority to carry out voluntary auctions of television spectrum. Known as “incentive auctions,” broadcasters who are willing to give up airwaves will receive a portion of the proceeds of commercial auctions.

· Surplus revenue from spectrum auctions, estimated to be more than $10 billion, will be directed to the U.S. Treasury for deficit reduction.

Paul Gallant, an analyst at MF Global, said unexpected Republican support for the bill helped move it through the committee.

But the window of opportunity to get it approved is slim.

“The political pressure to create a public safety network is strongest before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 – after that date, the pressure will gradually decline,” Gallant said in a research note. “Yet the Senate floor calendar is tight between now and 9/11.  And even if Senate leadership clears floor time, it is always possible that one or more Senators who oppose the bill will put a hold on it and prevent the full Senate from voting on it.”

Related Stories:

NAB’s Gordon Smith puts brakes on wireless spectrum plan

President Obama pitches wireless plan

Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.

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