Sen. Kohl: GOP spectrum bill a 'serious threat to consumers'

A congressional conference committee is expected to include legislation that would restructure how the country uses its airwaves in a package to extend payroll tax cuts.

The spectrum legislation 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 spectrum bill, which the House approved last year, prohibits the FCC from setting eligibility requirements and restricts the agency's ability to impose conditions on the companies that buy the spectrum.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has warned that the legislation would tie his agency's hands and would allow the largest wireless carriers — Verizon and AT&T — to buy up all of the spectrum at auction.

Sprint and T-Mobile, as well as small regional carriers, wrote a letter to the conference committee on Wednesday urging the negotiators to not micromanage the FCC.

Verizon has mostly stayed out of the spectrum auction battle, but AT&T is lobbying Congress to set tough restrictions on the FCC. 

In a blog post Wednesday, Jim Cicconi, AT&T's vice president of legislative affairs, said the FCC should not "stack the deck" in favor of smaller companies. 

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the author of the House legislation, has said the FCC should not be in the business of picking winners and losers. He argues his legislation is only aimed at stopping the FCC from excluding particular companies from the auctions.  

Under his bill, the FCC can still revoke the spectrum licenses after the auction if it determines one company has gained too much control over the airwaves. 

In his letter, Kohl said Section 4105 of the House bill would "fundamentally alter the current framework and limit the FCC's auction authority" to promote a competitive marketplace.

"As the government is planning to auction massive amounts of valuable spectrum over the next decade, this is not the time to take away a primary tool used in designing auctions to promote competition," Kohl wrote. 

He added that Section 4105 was not in the bill when it cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee and "did not receive full consideration by all interested parties before being inserted" into the bill when it passed the full House.

Kohl urged the conference committee to drop the provision "until a more thorough examination of spectrum auction policies can be held."

Earlier on Thursday, 42 House lawmakers urged the conference committee to drop provisions that would prohibit the FCC from designating additional spectrum for unlicensed use.