Pressure mounts on supercommittee to tackle spectrum

Lawmakers from both chambers and both sides of the aisle are urging the congressional supercommittee to authorize voluntary auctions of spectrum as part of their deficit-reduction plan.

There is widespread agreement on the necessity of the auctions, which would incent television broadcasters to relinquish spectrum so it could be purchased by wireless firms to meet the growing demand for mobile broadband service. But both parties are internally divided on what the final bill should look like, delaying the process and reducing the odds a bill can pass both chambers this year.

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Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski has been pushing Congress to immediately pass a bill authorizing the auctions, which he claims will generate $25 billion for taxpayers. On Friday, Genachowski suggested the supercommittee may be the best hope of accomplishing that goal in the near future during remarks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“I’m encouraged that the supercommittee is giving voluntary incentive auctions a hard look and I urge Congress to give the Commission the authority it needs to make incentive auctions a reality, because the costs of delay are massive and increase every day,” Genachowski said.

Genachowski also praised Senate Commerce chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) for shepherding a bill through their committee earlier this year that would authorize the auctions and re-allocate the D Block of spectrum to first responders for the creation of a public safety network.

The pair urged the supercommittee on Friday to adopt their bill, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would reduce the deficit by $6.5 billion. In a letter the senators said they are willing to amend the legislation to increase the figure to $10 billion.

But D Block re-allocation remains controversial, particularly with the leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is a member of the supercommittee; earlier this month he joined colleagues Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) in writing to President Obama expressing support for incentive auctions but arguing it may be necessary to reallocate some spectrum currently held by the government for wireless broadband. President Obama included spectrum auctions in his recent jobs plan.

The ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s telecom subpanel Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) confirmed the divide over D Block on Friday, noting that Republicans and Democrats on the panel have “agreed to disagree” on the issue. Opponents of giving the D Block to public safety argue it should be auctioned and a portion of the revenues should be used to fund a first responder network that shares commercial spectrum.

Brendan Sasso contributed reporting to this article.