Senate Commerce Committee backs spectrum trust fund

The Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday approved legislation that would create a trust fund to reimburse government spectrum users who are reallocated to new spectrum to make way for commercial services.

The panel also approved an amendment, over the objections of President Bush and the committee chairman, that would benefit Northpoint Communications and could harm the bill's chances on the Senate floor.

The bill, H.R. 1320, would require the creation of a trust fund to pay for the costs incurred when a government spectrum user, such as the Defense Department, is moved to another swath of spectrum to make way for commercial services. The money for the fund would be derived from the proceeds when spectrum is auctioned.

The House approved the bill on a 408-10 vote earlier this month. It is based on a proposal crafted by the Bush administration.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said he intends to offer an amendment during floor debate that would require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to submit to the Senate and House Appropriations and Commerce committees and to the comptroller general a copy of the cost estimates and timelines for reallocating spectrum. Congress and the comptroller would have the ability to approve or reject the proposal.

Stevens offered the amendment in committee but withdrew it over concerns voiced by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. Stevens noted that he would work with Byrd to resolve the issues.

The panel approved on a 13-8 vote an amendment offered that would reserve the band of spectrum from 12.2 gigahertz to 12.7 GHz for fixed-terrestrial communications services. The amendment stipulates that the spectrum could not be used for mobile telephone services.

That band of spectrum and the terrestrial services are well-suited to help rural areas receive high-speed Internet services and broadcast signals, said New Hampshire Republican John Sununu, who offered the language with Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

He garnered support from many lawmakers who represent rural areas. Backers of the amendment included: John Breaux, D-La.; Conrad Burns, R-Mont.; Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; Trent Lott, R-Miss.; and Stevens.

"I strongly oppose this amendment," said committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., noting that the Bush administration, the wireless telephone industry and others also oppose it. Committee ranking Democrat Ernest (Fritz) Hollings of South Carolina also objected, asking that if spectrum is given to one company, "do we have to give everybody free spectrum?"

Stevens noted that fixed-terrestrial services are the only way that many rural areas will receive the same services as urban areas, but he acknowledged that the proposal was the result of pleas from one company. "We know what it is; it's Northpoint," Stevens said.

Northpoint Communications brought its proposal to the FCC seeking access to the spectrum without success and then turned its sights on Congress. After the markup, industry sources noted that the amendment could hurt the bill's prospects on the floor.