Former FCC chief rips House spectrum bill

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Both chambers are considering legislation that would authorize the FCC to auction airwaves, or spectrum, that currently belong to television broadcasters, splitting some of the revenue with the stations that choose to participate.

The spectrum is potentially worth billions of dollars to wireless carriers, which are struggling to meet the growing data demands of smartphones and tablet computers.

The House Republican version of the legislation would restrict the FCC's ability to impose conditions on the companies that buy the spectrum and would prohibit the FCC from designating the spectrum it reclaims from broadcasters for unlicensed use. Unlicensed spectrum, which can be used by any company for free, powers technologies such as Wi-Fi, garage-door openers and remote controls.

Sens. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryLobbying world Kerry: Trump not pursuing 'smart' or 'clever' plan on North Korea Tillerson will not send high-ranking delegation to India with Ivanka Trump: report MORE (D-Mass.) and Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranMcConnell works to salvage tax bill GOP in furious push for tax-reform votes Overnight Tech: Lawmakers want answers on Uber breach | Justices divided in patent case | Tech makes plea for net neutrality on Cyber Monday MORE (R-Kan.) also spoke at the event and urged the House to not micromanage the FCC or close off the possibility for additional unlicensed spectrum.

Kerry said restricting unlicensed spectrum is "unbelievably shortsighted and remarkably self-defeating." He said the demand for Wi-Fi is exploding and that Congress cannot predict the new technologies that will rely on unlicensed spectrum.

He said the tech community should use the same power it showed in derailing two anti-piracy bills earlier this month to pressure Congress to pass a more tech-friendly spectrum bill.

House Republicans argue the government should not pay to reclaim airwaves that it will then give away for free in the form of unlicensed spectrum.

But Moran argued the economic growth resulting from technological innovations relying on unlicensed spectrum could result in a net gain in tax revenue. 

"There is a broader perspective, I think, that cannot be forgotten as we develop what the auction should look like," Moran said.

Hundt was the most outspoken in his blunt criticism of the House bill, saying the legislation focuses on one topic and "gets everything about that topic wrong."

He worried that the bill would allow the largest wireless carriers to buy up all of the spectrum at auction, expanding their dominance of the airwaves. He said the carriers might not even plan to use some of the spectrum but could buy it just to kill off competition.

He argued that Congress should rely on the FCC to use its technical expertise to set the conditions of the auction.

"It's not a good idea to have Congress act like an agency and pass legislation that's ten times longer than it needs to be," Hundt said. "This is a microcosm of why the American people are so unhappy with government in Washington."

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the sponsor of the legislation, told reporters last week his bill is only aimed at preventing the FCC from excluding particular companies from participating in the auctions. He said the FCC could always revoke some of the licenses if one company buys too many of them.

The House passed Walden's spectrum legislation as part of a package to extend the payroll tax holiday at the end of last year, but ultimately approved the Senate's temporary extension.

A conference committee is expected to deal with the spectrum provisions as part of a long-term deal to extend the tax cut.