It’s encouraging to see more congressional movement in repurposing federal spectrum for commercial use. This week, a bill rewarding federal agencies for ending or moving their wireless operations passed a House committee. The bipartisan Federal Spectrum Incentive Act of 2013 allows agencies to benefit when they voluntarily give up their spectrum for FCC auction.
In the past, an agency could receive a portion of auction proceeds but only to compensate the agency for relocating its systems. Agencies complained, sensibly, that this arrangement does little to encourage them to give up spectrum. Federal agencies had to go through the hassle of modifying their wireless equipment and sharing spectrum with another agency but were left no better off than before. In some cases, the complications with sharing spectrum made them worse off, so there was risk of downside and no upside.
This House bill provides that an agency can keep 1% of auction proceeds in addition to relocation costs. With this additional carrot, the hope is, agencies will be more willing to modify their equipment and make room for mobile broadband carriers.
The bill is a good start but I think it’s a little too restrictive. A one percent claim on auction receipts seems insufficient to induce dramatically improved agency participation. Given how poorly federal agencies use spectrum, Congress should be doing much more to force agencies to justify their spectrum usage. Additionally, how agencies can use that 1% benefit seems too limited. The bill allows the funds to be used 1) to offset sequestration cuts, and 2) to compensate other agencies if they agree to share spectrum. Some journalists are reporting that agencies can use the funds to expand existing programs but I don’t see that language in the proposed bill. It wouldn’t be a bad idea, though, to have fewer restrictions on the payments since it would likely increase agency participation.
See my Mercatus paper on the subject of repurposing federal spectrum.