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House Broadband Oversight Bill OK’d; White House Government Spectrum Review Urged

H.R. 1343 seeks the “return [of] unused or reclaimed funds made available for broadband awards in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to the Treasury of the United States.”

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that increases accountability and transparency for broadband stimulus spending, while a bi-partisan group of members of congress urges President Barack Obama take steps to expand public access to broadband spectrum.

Rep. Charles Bass, R-NH, introduced the bill—H.R. 1343—that seeks the “return [of] unused or reclaimed funds made available for broadband awards in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to the Treasury of the United States.”

It was approved by unanimous consent of the House, and if made into law, it would require the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Rural Utility Service to increase oversight of the approximately $7 billion awarded through two broadband-related grant and loan programs that were part of the 2009 stimulus funding. The agencies would be required to terminate an award and return the funds to the U.S. Treasury if they find waste, fraud or insufficient performance, according to Bass.

“It only makes sense that Congress requires an accounting of how these funds are being spent and what the American taxpayer is getting for them,” Bass said. The Senate version of the bill is S. 1659.

While H.R. 1343 seeks more oversight of broadband spectrum funding, four members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction from both houses sent a letter to Obama requesting a review of how the federal government is using spectrum and how it can be used more efficiently. The goal of the review is to reallocate portions of existing government spectrum to expand the public’s access to broadband, the letter says.

The letter was signed by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass. and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa; and Reps. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif. and Fred Upton, R-Mich. The letter says:

“The Budget Control Act tasks the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction with developing recommendations to reduce the deficit by ‘at least $1.5 trillion’ by FY [fiscal year] 2021. One way to produce job growth is spectrum auctions. In February, you [Obama] set a goal of making an additional 500 MHz of spectrum available for wireless broadband use. You identified voluntary incentive auctions of spectrum currently allocated, for example, to broadcast television as one potential source. We certainly support such voluntary incentive auctions. But we believe that those auctions will not produce all the spectrum we need to meet our country’s growing demand for broadband.

“In an effort to produce more spectrum for wireless broadband than in the current proposal, we respectfully request that you direct the Office of Management and Budget to re-examine and consider expanding a proposal in your FY 2012 Budget and in your recommendations submitted to the committee for consideration on Sept. 19, 2011, specifically, to make more efficient use of federal government spectrum and reallocate some of it for commercial broadband use. In particular, we should put every effort into making available paired, internationally-harmonized spectrum below 3 GHz in sufficient block sizes to support mobile broadband services within the next 10 years.

“These efforts enjoy bipartisan Congressional support. Spectrum auctions would generate tens of billions of dollars in auction proceeds, help the Select Committee meet its deficit reduction goals, stimulate billions in private-sector capital investment, provide a job-creating boost to the economy, and ensure that America continues to lead the world in wireless broadband innovation. The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 yielded spectrum now being used to deploy 4G wireless services and gave the United States an international edge in the growing wireless economy. Let’s build on that momentum.”

The lawmakers requested a response from Obama by Oct. 14.