WASHINGTON -- A House committee voted unanimously yesterday to turn over a large segment of the radio spectrum, previously reserved for the government, to commercial uses.
The approval of the House Energy and Commerce Committee marked an important step toward finding room on the crowded airwaves for new technologies such as pocket-sized radio telephones, digital radio and computers that transmit data over the air.
The new legislation does not endorse particular technologies, nor does it settle the sticky issue of how the new frequencies will be allocated. But it takes the crucial first step of requiring the Commerce Department to identify the large array of underutilized government frequencies that can be reassigned for commercial purposes.
Support for the measure, which passed the House last year but died in the Senate, appears to have increased significantly in recent months. The Senate Commerce Committee recently passed a similar measure, and House Democrats have succeeded in overcoming objections by Republicans.
The Bush administration, which opposed the measure last year out of concern over the national security implications of reassigning such a wide range of frequencies, now supports the general proposition. But it still contends that any legislation should require that new channels be allocated through an auction process to the highest bidder.
House Democrats favor the use of comparative hearings, in which potential users would have to establish their relative merits over those of their rivals.
But senior Republicans on the committee supported yesterday's measure after Representative Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the telecommunications subcommittee and a principal sponsor of the bill, committed himself to considering the entire process by which new frequencies would be allocated.
The new legislation would give the secretary of commerce two years to identify government frequencies totaling 200 megahertz -- about four times the band width used by cellular telephone systems -- that can be allocated for new commercial uses.
The Federal Communications Commission would then have 15 years to define the particular uses for each new frequency.