In one of two spectrum-related developments on Capitol Hill during the past week, members of the Senate Commerce Committee began circulating a draft bill that would require the federal government to relinquish an additional 20 MHz spectrum for commercial broadband use beyond the 30 MHz approved as part of the budget measure signed by President Obama on November 2.  Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, introduced legislation that would mandate the development of a national unlicensed spectrum strategy and require the FCC “to establish a process that will ensure that future spectrum allocation and assignment actions produce a balance between licensed and unlicensed bands.”  

On November 18, Commerce Committee members are expected to conduct a mark-up of the draft MOBILE NOW Act, which would amend provisions of the Spectrum Pipeline Act (SPA) that were incorporated into the recent budget deal.  Pursuant to the SPA, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) must identify 30 MHz of federal government spectrum below 3 GHz for reallocation to the wireless industry (or for shared federal/private sector use) by January 2022.  In addition to boosting the federal spectrum outlay to 50 MHz, the draft bill before the committee would accelerate the reallocation deadline to February 2021.  While codifying the Obama Administration’s goal of freeing up an additional 500 MHz of spectrum for wireless broadband use by 2020, the draft measure would also (1) require the FCC to adopt rules to facilitate unlicensed use of guard band spectrum in channels to be auctioned, (2) permit federal agencies in certain instances to lease their spectrum to wireless carriers, and (3) prescribe a 90-day shot clock for federal agencies to act on wireless industry applications to deploy communications infrastructure on federal lands or in federal buildings.  

In contrast to provisions of the pending Federal Spectrum Incentive Act (H.R. 1641), which would incentivize federal agencies to relinquish their spectrum with a 1% cut of auction proceeds, the draft MOBILE NOW bill would provide agencies with up to 25% of the auction proceeds for surrendering their channels.  Agencies would receive a smaller cut of the proceeds if they continue to operate on auctioned channels on a shared basis or if they move to other bands.  

Meanwhile, Schatz explained that his bill, known as the Promoting Unlicensed Spectrum Act (S. 2278), “will make sure we develop an aggressive plan to ensure that unlicensed spectrum will be available in the future” to fuel technological innovation and the capacity demands of wireless consumers.  Specifically, the FCC would be given one year from the bill’s enactment to develop a national strategy for “making additional radio frequency bands available for unlicensed operations,” which would have to include bands to “be cleared of incumbents . . . as well as low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum.”  The bill also directs the FCC to consider rules to promote spectrum sharing among licensed and unlicensed users.  The NTIA would have to report to Congress on “the steps necessary to designate additional radio frequency bands used by federal entities for unlicensed operations.”  As Schatz maintained that his bill reflects the “critical” role unlicensed spectrum plays “in innovation and our economy,” a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said, “we look forward to working with Senator Schatz and all members of the committee in advancing spectrum policy through a balanced approach that expands opportunities for both licensed and unlicensed users.”