Dozens of lawmakers call for more unlicensed spectrum

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The spectrum provisions would authorize the FCC to auction airwaves 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 auction proceeds would help offset the cost of extending the tax cuts.

The Republican version of the legislation, which the House approved last year, 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. Technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and remote controls transmit their signals over unlicensed spectrum bands.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), argues the government should not pay to reclaim airwaves that it will then give away for free in the form of unlicensed spectrum.

His bill would not affect any spectrum that is already reserved for unlicensed use.

"Unlicensed spectrum has an important role to play, and we have worked hard to find the right balance on a policy that protects taxpayers and promotes innovation," Rep. Walden said in a statement. "There is currently more unlicensed spectrum than there is licensed spectrum for wireless broadband use."

Walden, who is chairman of the Energy and Commerce's telecom subcommittee, said his spectrum bill "simply says that the FCC cannot spend taxpayer funds to clear additional spectrum and then give away that billions of dollars worth of spectrum. Taxpayers deserve a return on their investment."

In their letter to the conference committee on Thursday, the lawmakers said Congress should allow the FCC to set aside additional unlicensed spectrum, including some of the most valuable frequencies in the broadcast television band.

"Exploring the use of beachfront spectrum, specifically in the television band, is vital given its ability to penetrate buildings, enhance rural coverage, and carry more data traffic than traditional Wi-Fi," the lawmakers wrote.

They claimed that setting aside additional unlicensed spectrum would "unlock billions of dollars in private investment, new innovations, job creation, and economic growth."

Opening up more unlicensed spectrum is a top priority for many tech companies, such as Google and Microsoft. 

The letter was mostly signed by Democrats, but in addition to Issa, the group also included GOP Reps. Jason Chaffetz (Utah) and Dave Reichert (Wash.).

--Updated at 2:42 p.m.