WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives yesterday approved a bill that would require the federal government to free a big block of radio frequencies for electronic devices like wireless pocket telephones and palm-sized computers.
The measure sailed through by a vote of 410-5. A similar measure has been introduced in the Senate, but congressional Democrats still may find themselves on a collision course with President Clinton over how the new frequencies are handed out.
In his package of economic proposals, the president called for auctions that would sell rights to the airwaves to the highest bidder. The administration says that these auctions could produce $4 billion in revenues over the next five years and that market-like bidding would lead to more rational use of the radio spectrum.
But the bill's sponsor, Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, says he's worried that auctions would cede control of a valuable and scarce public resource to big corporations.
The government now awards licenses at no charge, either through luck-of-the-draw lotteries for services like cellular telephones and paging, or through long and complex comparative hearings for television and radio stations.
Both processes have been criticized by Democrats and Republicans as inefficient and as bonanzas for speculators who obtain licenses at no cost and resell them.
Still, many lawmakers are hesitant to embrace auctions as the only alternative.
Debate over the idea of auctioning the airwaves has stalled the bill to free new areas of the spectrum, which is otherwise a popular piece of legislation.
The Bush administration argued that no bill to re-allocate frequencies should pass unless it authorized auctions. House Democrats sidestepped the issue, approving bills in 1990 and 1992 that were silent on the question.
The Senate last year became bogged down over the question, with senators trying to craft a compromise that would authorize an experimental auction on a small block of frequencies.
The Clinton administration entered the fray last week with a letter to Mr. Dingell that criticized the House bill for its silence on the auction question.
"This bill raises a number of substantial concerns," wrote Carol C. Darr, the Commerce Department's acting general counsel, who argued that auctions would bring a much-needed change to the current system.
The letter stated that auctions would encourage efficient use of the radio spectrum, because "assignments would be based on economic value to the user, as expressed by a willingness to pay."
It also stated that auction revenues would help reduce the federal budget deficit and that the auctions could be designed to give special consideration to entrepreneurs and nonprofit groups.
Mr. Dingell and his colleagues may be softening. In a letter last week, Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and a co-sponsor of the bill with Mr. Dingell, said he was "committed to considering an auction proposal" that would protect the public interest.
But he also demanded that the administration put forward a detailed proposal that would leave room for cash-short small businesses and prevent companies from abusing the process.