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Spectrum hearing prompts plea for IT education funding

Mar 25, 20035 mins
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Two Democratic lawmakers and a former broadcasting executive Tuesday called on Congress to set up a trust fund for technology education as the House of Representatives tries to streamline the process in which the government auctions off some of its radio spectrum to private companies.

Two Democratic lawmakers and a former broadcasting executive Tuesday called on Congress to set up a trust fund for technology education as the House of Representatives tries to streamline the process in which the government auctions off some of its radio spectrum to private companies.

Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of both NBC News and the Public Broadcasting System, during a spectrum hearing asked representatives to put the excess money from commercial auctions of the reallocated spectrum into an Educational Trust Fund earmarked for IT education and training.

The trust fund would “ensure that the nation’s vast educational and cultural heritage, housed in our museums, libraries and universities, will reach beyond their walls and into the home, school and workplace, even in the poorest and most remote areas of the nation,” Grossman said. “It would transform the Internet into an enriched tool for training, learning, and public participation.”

Grossman’s pleas were part of a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Telecommunication and the Internet, focusing on the proposed Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act. The proposed law would streamline the five-plus-year process for moving valuable spectrum allocated to the  Department of Defense and other agencies to private companies deploying 3G wireless services. In July 2002, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that 90 MHz of wireless spectrum would be made available for 3G. Of that total, 45 MHz would come from commercial spectrum and 45 MHz from the Defense Department and other federal agencies.

The federal government plans to auction that spectrum to commercial users by early 2005, and estimates the spectrum will be available for wireless customers some time in 2008. The Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act, introduced by Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, would streamline that process and set up a trust fund, funded by the sale of the federal spectrum, to ensure the federal agencies would be reimbursed for the cost of moving to less commercially popular sections of the wireless spectrum.

Steven Berry, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, said he wholeheartedly supported Upton’s plan, and Nancy Victory, assistant secretary for communications and information at the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said the bill was similar enough to a proposal offered by her agency and the George W. Bush administration last July. The administration bill didn’t get through Congress last year.

Such a process would bring “certainty and predictability” to reallocation auctions, Victory said. “Predictability of process also will permit incumbent (agencies) to minimize any temporary out-of-pocket costs — a big concern for busy agencies with tight budgets,” she said.

However, Steven Price, deputy assistant secretary of defense for spectrum, sensors and C3 (command, control and communications), said the Defense Department has some concerns about how fast Upton bill’s speed will move the auction along. The bill would give agencies about three months to identify the costs of relocating to another piece of the spectrum, Price said, whereas 18 months is a more reasonable time-frame.

Some representatives also expressed concerns about the Defense Department (DOD) losing spectrum in a time when the agency uses wireless technologies to do a variety of tasks, including guiding missiles and other weapons. Price said the military has no plans to shrink the amount of spectrum it uses.

“If someone had asked us, ‘do you want to move or not want to move?’ we wouldn’t want to move,” he said of the reallocation process. “Over time, the DOD believes we’ll need more spectrum, not less.”

Democratic Representative John Dingell of Michigan also raised concerns that the Upton bill doesn’t give Congress enough oversight over how the spectrum auction funds are claimed by federal agencies. The Upton bill gives Congressional committees a 30-day notification of auction funds being transferred to agencies from the trust fund set up in the Upton bill.

“Unfortunately, my experience with government agencies and, in particular, with the Department of Defense, indicates that a bit more oversight is necessary to ensure that scarce federal dollars are being spent wisely and in a manner that is consistent with what the Congress intended,” Dingell said. “Indeed, this committee’s past oversight investigations have found many examples of wasteful spending by agencies, and particularly the Department of Defense.”

Dingell joined Grossman in calling for a second trust fund to benefit technology education at public schools, and Democrat Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts urged the committee to consider the educational trust fund proposal in his Spectrum Commons and Digital Dividends Act, introduced March 20. Markey also called for Congress to make more unlicensed spectrum available for the public’s use.

“When the FCC does decide to proceed with auctions as a means of granting licenses for use of the public’s airwaves, the public deserves to reap the benefits of the sale of licenses to its airwaves,” Markey said, while calling for a Digital Dividend Trust Fund. “These benefits should not only manifest themselves in the offering of new commercial services and the temporary infusion of cash into the federal treasury.”

However, Democrats on the subcommittee couldn’t even agree that a second trust fund for technology education was a top priority. Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, suggested the subcommittee consider a third trust fund to help emergency responders, such as police and firefighters, better use their chunk of the spectrum.