House panel pushes feds to relinquish airwaves

A House subcommittee signed off on legislation Wednesday meant to expand access to mobile and broadband Internet.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology approved a bill to coax federal agencies into giving up some of their wireless spectrum and a package of reforms aimed at making it easier to build the infrastructure that forms the backbone of Internet service.

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Members on both sides of the aisle praised the Federal Spectrum Incentive Act, which says that federal agencies that auction off their spectrum to the private sector can receive some of the proceeds from the sale.

Some say that wireless frequencies controlled by federal agencies, like the Department of Defense, could be better used by wireless carriers, who are trying to meet the demand for wireless data fueled by the adoption of smartphones. The bill’s supporters say it would make it easier for federal agencies to surrender some of their airwaves.

Rep. Doris Matsui (Calif.), the primary Democratic sponsor of the bill, called it a “critical next step” in efficiently allocating spectrum.

“We know that the federal government is one of the largest users of spectrum and that spectrum is essential for many federal agencies’ missions,” she said. “Our bipartisan bill creates a new approach to spectrum management by offering incentives for federal users to relinquish or share spectrum.”

The panel also approved draft legislation that would require federally funded highway projects to include laying broadband conduit. Also included in the package are measures to speed up the approval process for certain types of broadband infrastructure.

Though the bills were almost universally praised, Subcommittee Chair Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said that committee was aware of the electric industry’s concerns about suggested changes related to attaching broadband equipment to electric poles.

“While we seek to promote broadband deployment, that should not come at a cost to electric ratepayers,” said Walden.

The push by the House panel comes as the Senate Commerce Committee weighs its own bill related to mobile broadband. That measure is expected to be marked up this month.