The race is apparently on down on Capitol Hill to make sure that the FCC has the authority to share spectrum auction proceeds with licensees who are willing to give up the spectrum to be sold off, presumably for broadband purposes. Late last month we reported on S. 6310, the Kerry-Snowe bill introduced in the Senate, which includes a provision for proceeds sharing. Now, Reps. Boucher (D-VA) and Stearns (R-FL) have tossed in the Voluntary Incentive Auctions Act of 2010 (H.R. 5947) which would accomplish the same purpose. But, unlike the Kerry-Snowe bill, the Boucher-Stearns bill contains nothing about spectrum fees.

To the contrary, H.R. 5947 is short, sweet and to the point. It would give the FCC the authority (which it currently lacks) to share spectrum auction proceeds with any licensee who agrees “to participate in relinquishing voluntarily” its rights to the spectrum. While the bill leaves the precise mechanism for the sharing (as well as the amount or percentage of auction proceeds to be shared) to the Commission’s discretion, the Boucher-Stearns proposal makes one thing clear: any relinquishment of spectrum must be voluntary. The bill includes “voluntary” in its title, and then again in the heading of the new one-paragraph section that would be inserted into the Communications Act. And that paragraph includes “voluntarily” not once, but twice. 

And just to make sure that there’s no doubt here, the bill contains a section that: (a) prohibits the FCC from “reclaiming” for auction purposes any TV spectrum “directly or indirectly on an involuntary basis” and (b) emphasizes that nothing in the bill “shall permit, or be construed as permitting” the FCC to do so.

Fleshing out just what he had in mind when he used the term “voluntary”, Rep. Boucher explained in his introductory statement that, in his view, imposition of “a spectrum fee that would make some licensees financially unable to keep their spectrum would make the spectrum surrender constructively involuntary and would be impermissible under the terms of our legislation.” 

So it’s apparently not far-fetched to figure that a spectrum fee (such as the one proposed in the Kerry-Snowe bill in the Senate) might be used to squeeze broadcasters into handing over their spectrum. All the more reason to keep a careful watch on what goes on down on Capitol Hill in coming months.