Budget deal greenlights wireless auction

Budget deal greenlights wireless auction
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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would auction off wireless spectrum controlled by federal agencies under a budget deal released by congressional leaders late Monday night.

If the current deal is approved, the Department of Commerce would identify 30 megahertz of spectrum — the invisible radio waves that carry information to and from wireless devices — currently controlled by federal agencies that can be opened up and auctioned. Government agencies could then move their activity to different frequencies.

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The sale would likely take years to execute. The discussion draft of the deal mandates that an auction take place by July 1, 2024.

Lawmakers also took steps to free up additional spectrum. The bill asks the FCC to produce two reports, each outlining a timeline for additional auctions of 50 megahertz of spectrum. It must produce the first report by 2022 and the second one two years after that.

Wireless industry groups, lawmakers and regulators have all said that federal agencies that have significant spectrum holdings, like the Department of Defense and the Department of Transportation, would do well to transfer some of their frequencies to the private sector. With more Americans adopting smartphones, they argue that policymakers need to free up more of the spectrum that powers data-intensive activities like streaming video.

Though an auction next year will transfer some airwaves controlled by broadcasters to wireless providers, advocates have eyed the airwaves controlled by the federal government as a potentially fruitful source of spectrum in the coming decades.

As part of the budget deal, federal agencies would be allowed to use money from a fund meant to help them relocate the airwaves to study ways to free up some of the spectrum they are currently using.

Despite the language in the deal, a Senate Commerce Committee aide said that the panel would continue to examine mobile broadband policy and look to address issues that affect the availability of wireless internet, like the policies on broadband infrastructure.

Lawmakers hope that the spectrum sales will offset spending included in the broader package. To do so, they will have to convince the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that the language frees up spectrum that otherwise wouldn’t have been auctioned off. Otherwise, the CBO will assume that it has already accounted for the revenue generated by the auction in previous estimates.

Spectrum auctions have brought in major hauls for the government before. An auction that closed earlier this year raised nearly $45 billion, and the auction next year is expected to net billions more. 

The House could vote on the draft budget deal, which has drawn fire from some conservatives, on Wednesday.

It is seen as a way to take some of the pressure off of Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanDemocrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights Three-way clash set to dominate Democratic debate Krystal Ball touts Sanders odds in Texas MORE (R-Wis.), who is expected to be chosen as successor to Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner reveals portrait done by George W. Bush Meadows to be replaced by Biggs as Freedom Caucus leader Scaramucci compares Trump to Jonestown cult leader: 'It's like a hostage crisis inside the White House' MORE’s (R-Ohio) this week. Ryan was not a part of the budget negotiations and is weighing the agreement.

The deal would raise the debt ceiling, fending off a government default and break through spending limits put in place in 2011.