Bipartisan Deal Opens Path to Reauthorizing FCC, Spectrum Sale

Walden, Pallone, Thune, Nelson all party to deal

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., left, and ranking member Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., helped make a deal on reauthorizing the FCC and forging a path for spectrum auctions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Key House and Senate members unveiled a bipartisan agreement Friday on a Federal Communications Commission reauthorization that would provide the agency with more than $330 million annually in fiscal years 2019 and 2020.

The agreement also resolves issues that were slowing spectrum auctions for wireless technology.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., as well as ranking members Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., said the agreement would promote next-generation wireless technology.

The “bipartisan, bicameral product puts consumers first and solidifies the nation’s critical telecommunications infrastructure, giving the U.S. a global edge” in the race to develop fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless networks “and in improving improving internet services across the country,” they said in a joint statement.

The House is expected to vote on the bill next week under suspension of the rules, an expedited procedure that limits debate and amendments and requires a two-thirds majority for passage. The text of the measure is expected to move as an amended version of the committee-approved House FCC reauthorization bill, sponsored by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

The path to final Senate passage is unclear, although several senior Republicans said this week that such an agreement could move as a stand-alone measure or an add-on to other legislation.

According to a 108-page draft released Friday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the bill would provide $333 million to the FCC in fiscal 2019 and $339 million in fiscal 2020. The funding would be more than the $322 million in annual funding for fiscal 2019 and 2020 provided in the House version of the FCC reauthorization approved by the Energy and Commerce Committee by voice vote on Feb. 14.

According to a summary of the agreement, it would include a provision aimed at clearing the way for future spectrum auctions by making clear that funds from spectrum bids could be placed in the Treasury and not in a private bank or in the Federal Reserve.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai praised the leaders of both panels in a tweet Friday morning for “forging an agreement that would allow” the agency to carry out spectrum auctions, including two planned auctions aimed at expediting development of 5G networks that he outlined in a speech to the Mobile World Congress in Spain on Feb. 26.

In the speech, Pai said he would need Congress to “pass legislation by May 13 addressing the handling of upfront payments” contained in the FCC reauthorization, in order to start one of the auctions in November, as planned.

The measure would establish a fund — without specifying the amount of funding — to help broadcasters cover costs related to a pending reshuffling of spectrum slots after an incentive auction last year to make way for wireless providers.

The agreement would include a fund to reimburse television broadcasters and low-power television operators for giving up channels to accommodate wireless providers. The measure also would allow aid for FM radio station operators to help cover the cost of moving radio equipment related to the spectrum reshuffling.

The funds were a top priority for the National Association of Broadcasters, which praised the agreement in a written statement as as a “significant step toward fully reimbursing broadcaster ‘repack’ to help cover relocation costs.”

A separate Pallone proposal would authorize $1 billion to compensate broadcasters for repack-related costs, but lawmakers have not reached consensus on the amount of funding for such expenses.

Thune won a key concession in the accord with the inclusion of language similar to his bipartisan Senate-passed proposal to identify for auction 255 megahertz of spectrum for mobile networks and wireless broadband.

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