No spectrum fees proposed in bill focused on establishment of first responder/public safety network

Another bill that would authorize the sharing of spectrum auction proceeds has popped up in Congress.  It seems like EVERYBODY’s got one these days. The latest clearly has legs, since its primary sponsor is none other than the Chair of the Senate Committee for Commerce, Science and Transportation, Senator Jay Rockefeller. Since that Committee happens to have primary say over the FCC’s operations, it’s a pretty good bet that attention will be paid to this bad boy.

The proceeds-sharing component of the bill is far from the focus of the proposal, which is dubbed the “Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act”.. Rather, as its name implies, the bill’s primary goal is to provide first responders and public safety officials with additional wireless resources through the deployment of a “nationwide public safety interoperable broadband network in the 700 MHz band”. But in a brief section tucked away toward the back of the bill (on page 21 of the linked draft, if you’re looking), the drafters provide that

[i]f the Commission determines that it is consistent with the public interest in utilization of the spectrum for a licensee to  relinquish voluntarily some or all of its licensed spectrum usage rights in order to permit the assignment of new initial licenses subject to new service rules, the Commission may disburse to that licensee a portion of the auction proceeds related to the new use that the Commission determines, in its discretion, are attributable to the licensee’s relinquished spectrum usage.

And a couple of pages later, the drafters include this “rule of construction” to help us interpret the bill:

Nothing in this Act or in the amendments made by this Act shall be construed to permit the Commission to reclaim frequencies of broadcast television licensees or any other licensees directly or indirectly on an involuntary basis for the purpose that section.

In other words, there’s not much detail here. Like the Boucher-Terry bill recently introduced in the House, Rockefeller’s approach seems designed simply to make sure that the FCC can divvy up auction proceeds to incentivize broadcasters to give up their spectrum for auction – with the Commission enjoying broad discretion as to how that might be accomplished. The bill goes out of its way (like Boucher-Terry) to emphasize that any reclamation of broadcast spectrum must be voluntary on the part of the broadcaster. But while Rockefeller’s latest bill contains no provision for spectrum fees (unlike the Kerry-Snowe bill introduced last month), Rockefeller’s statement relative to the bill is silent on the spectrum fee question, unlike Rep. Boucher, who suggested that draconian spectrum fees might be deemed be deemed impermissible coercion on broadcasters.

From the recent flurry of Congressional proposals, it sure looks at this point like auction proceeds sharing is inevitable. When we may see it and what form it may take are obviously still to be determined. Check back here for updates.