AT&T Lashes Out at FCC’s Bid for Flexibility in Spectrum Auctions

Congress, not FCC, should set auction conditions, says AT&T

AT&T, one of the likely biggest bidders in any government auction for wireless spectrum, lashed out at the Federal Communications Commission's push for flexibility in how spectrum auctions are conducted.

In a statement, the telecom giant took issue with remarks made earlier this week by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who said at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that certain proposals in Congress that would limit the FCC's flexibility in conducting auctions would be a "mistake."

The bigger mistake, said AT&T, would be to give FCC "carte blanche" to do what it wanted with the auctions.

“In our experience, anytime a regulatory agency seeks unfettered discretion, that is the best reason Congress should not give it to them," said Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior evp of external and legislative affairs, in a statement.

Although he didn't mention the bill by name, Genachowski's remarks specifically referred to provisions in the House Energy & Commerce bill that would prevent the FCC from putting any conditions on which companies could bid for the spectrum or setting any terms. The bill (called the Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum Act, or JOBS Act) would also prohibit the FCC from designating some spectrum for unlicensed use. Democratic bills in the Senate give the FCC full power to conduct the auctions as the agency sees fit.

AT&T, which recently was shut out of its merger with T-Mobile by the government, would naturally like to keep the FCC's hands tied, something the House GOP spectrum bill does. Like Verizon and other wireless companies, AT&T is in a race to add more spectrum to meet consumers' growing demand for more mobile wireless services.

"For the FCC to assert in the name of ‘fostering competition’ that it should have final say on which companies can bid on spectrum is for them to engage in picking winners and losers. That is not the job of the FCC. When consumers are able to make decisions in a free and competitive market—and wireless is clearly that—the FCC should not be allowed to impose its own will if it doesn’t like the choices those consumers make," Cicconi said.

Spectrum legislation almost made it through Congress at the end of 2011 as part of a year-end payroll tax cut extensions bill. But Democrats and the GOP couldn't agree on provisions, including whether the FCC should have flexibility to conduct auctions the way the agency sees fit. As Congress returns, it will be a top priority again since part of both the Senate and the House bill would set aside spectrum for an interoperable public safety network, something both parties want.  


Responding to AT&T, FCC wireless bureau chief Rick Kaplan said in a statement that the FCC's authority and flexibility in spectrum auctions has a long history spanning 80 auctions that have generated $50 million for the U.S. Treasury. "Stripping this traditional authority for the first time ever would threaten the tremendous innovation and investment the FCC has helped foster in the wireless space during the last 30 years," Kaplan said.

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