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House Committee Votes to Delay Spectrum Auction

Bowing to pressure from the wireless industry, the U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee voted Thursday morning to approve a bill that would delay the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) June 19 spectrum auction of airwaves currently being used by television broadcasters. The legislation now moves to the House floor for consideration.

The FCC has already delayed the auction for the airwaves used by channels 60-69 five times. The Commission is also under a legal mandate to sell airwaves used by channels 652-59 by Sept. 30.

In mid-April, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), a trade association whose members would be the primary bidders for the spectrum, asked the FCC to delay the auction but the agency's wireless bureau turned down the request. Adding to pressure to delay the sale also came from U.S. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans in a letter to the FCC asking the agency to postpone the June sale until Congress decides if it wants to extend or eliminate the auction deadline.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell has said any delay in the auction date should come from Congress since it wrote the original law.

At issue is the spectrum currently held by television broadcasters who are supposed to return it as they migrate to digital. Under the current law, the broadcasters are not required to give up the analog airwaves, which are the focus of the June 19 auction, until 2006 or when the penetration for digital television reaches 85 percent, whichever comes later.

"The reasons [for delay] that existed in 2000 still exist today. It is impossible to assess market conditions," said Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R.-La.). "Conducting auctions for both the upper and lower bands would be wrong. They are not ready for prime time."

The wireless community wants the delay the auction in order to gain a better feel for when the spectrum might actually be available in order to access market conditions and to develop business plans.

"The Commerce Committee's rapid action and overwhelming vote sends a major message," said Tom Wheeler, president and chief executive officer of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. "We hope the FCC understands the message to slow the railroad."

The legislation approved by the committee on Thursday would eliminate all deadlines for the auction and specifically bar the June sale. The bill also would require the FCC to report to Congress on its spectrum allocation plans.

"Back in 1997, and again in 2000, over this Committee's objections, the Budget Committees commandeered the management of the Nation's airwaves. They set auction deadlines that were asinine, constituting a gross mismanagement of spectrum. Today we take back the reins and restore rationality to the process," said Congressman John Dingell (D.-Mich.).