Senate panel clears bill to free up airwaves

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A Senate panel on Thursday approved a bill aimed at freeing up more valuable airwaves, known as spectrum, that are crucial to the operation of wireless devices.

The bill would require the Department of Commerce to issue recommendations within 18 months on how to incentivize federal agencies to give up their spectrum and commissions other reports on various ways to open up more spectrum.

It also streamlines the process for building out certain infrastructure related to wireless broadband.

The committee adopted 12 non-controversial amendments to the bill. Several would bolster access to unlicensed spectrum, which can be accessed without having permission from the government and is behind technologies like WiFi.

Licensed spectrum is assigned to a single user by the Federal Communications Commission or a division of the Department of Commerce. 

Another amendment would establish a cash prize for innovations related to using spectrum more efficiently.

The legislation is the product of months of negotiations between Republicans and Democrats on the committee. It still needs to be approved by the full Senate, though Thune says he hopes there is a path to get it approved by unanimous consent.

However, the bill’s path to passage in the House is murky. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has said he doesn’t expect to take action on spectrum policy reforms until after the committee holds a hearing related to a major spectrum auction being held by the FCC starting on March 29.

“I think that hopefully the stakeholders and the people who care about this, which I think is a fairly big universe of people, will now if we can get this through the Senate ... that they’ll try and get some movement in the House,” Thune said. "When that happens is up to the House I guess.”