Broadcast and wireless industry officials joined members of the FCC in applauding the bipartisan passage of legislation by the House Energy & Commerce Committee that would reauthorize the FCC for the first time in 25 years while providing additional funds to cover the repacking expenses of broadcasters who must relocate to new spectrum in the wake of last year’s incentive auction.
Adopted unanimously last week, the bill, once known as the FCC Reauthorization Act (H.R. 4986), now bears the title of the Repack Airwaves Yielding Better Access for Users of Modern Services (RAY BAUMS) Act in honor of Ray Baum, a House Energy & Commerce Committee staff director who died earlier this month. In addition to authorizing $322 million in FCC appropriations funding for fiscal years 2019 and 2020, the measure includes language from at least a dozen other pending House bills which include, among others, the Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act, the Viewer Protection Act, the Spectrum Auction Deposits Act and the Securing Access to Networks in Disaster Act. Bill provisions aimed at FCC process reform would (1) require the FCC to publish and circulate proposed orders and other documents at least 21 days prior to agency action, (2) set an 18-month “shot clock” for the completion of FCC rulemaking proceedings, and (3) allow a bipartisan majority of FCC commissioners to meet for the purpose of discussing official agency business as long as the meeting is disclosed publicly and no vote is held. Other provisions added to the legislation by way of amendment would require the FCC to (1) prepare a report on the promotion of broadband services to U.S. veterans, (2) prepare a report on broadband coverage in tribal areas, and (3) establish a methodology to cover the collection of mobile service coverage data.
Perhaps most importantly, the measure would provide additional funds to supplement the $1.75 billion allocated previously by Congress in the 2012 Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act to pay the relocation expenses of broadcasters—including co-located FM radio, low-power TV and TV translator licensees—who are displaced from their channel assignments as a result of the incentive auction. Although the bill does not specify the exact amount of money to be added to the Broadcaster Relocation Fund, Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) remarked that, “by making sure we properly relocate broadcasters displaced in the incentive auction, we add further legitimacy to future spectrum auctions and other improvements in communications policy.” In another provision which adds legitimacy to the FCC’s auction process, the bill incorporates language of the Spectrum Auction Deposits Act of 2017 which allows the FCC to deposit auction proceeds directly with the U.S. Treasury instead of into an interest-bearing account, thereby correcting a defect in current law that has prevented the FCC from scheduling future auctions.
As Walden voiced confidence that the measure will soon be considered on the House floor, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) told reporters that his committee will take up its own version of FCC reauthorization legislation shortly. Meanwhile, while ranking House Energy & Commerce Committee member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) declared that “the legislation before us today, with our bipartisan amendments, is better as a result of our work together,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai praised the committee for “fixing a problem in current law that prevents the FCC from holding a major spectrum auction” while authorizing “additional funding for the repacking of broadcasters.” Welcoming the vote, Competitive Carriers Association President Steve Berry emphasized, “it is absolutely critical for competitive carriers to have access to the spectrum purchased in the recent incentive auction to expand their networks . . . and we appreciate any efforts to make sure this happens as soon as possible.”