FCC Launches World’s First Incentive Spectrum Auctions

Designed to free up more spectrum for mobile wireless

Many of the issues addressed by the Federal Communications Commission fall into the category of high geek and rarely draw a crowd. Not today. Friday’s meeting, to launch the world’s first wireless spectrum auction with the goal of alleviating a looming spectrum crunch, was easily the most highly attended meeting in the agency’s recent history.

To support a full house, the FCC provided additional seating occuppied by lobbyists representing the various industries that are impacted by an auction of wireless spectrum, from the TV broadcasters that may decide to voluntarily relinquish their spectrum to the wireless companies that are anxious to buy it.

Getting more wireless spectrum has been a high priority for the Julius Genachowski-led FCC, which has beat the drum about a looming spectrum crunch since it issued its National Broadband Plan more than two years ago. So it was no surprise that as soon as Congress gave the authority in February to hold auctions, chairman Genachowski wasted no time in putting the spectrum auction proceeding on the fast track.

All five commissioners voted to go through with the complex proposed rulemaking which begins the process of hammering out how the FCC will design the auctions.

“This is a big deal,” Genachowski said, with a wink and a nod to vice president Joe Biden’s famous remark. “We became the first nation in the world to launch spectrum auctions. The world is watching.”

The 150-page document, which should be available next week, includes proposed details for how TV station licensees submit bids to voluntarily relinquish spectrum and how the broadcast TV band would be reorganized. Until the first two steps are implemented, the FCC won’t know how much spectrum it has to auction, nor what frequencies in what locations it can put on the block.

As this is the first, there’s a lot riding on how the FCC decides to organize and run the spectrum auctions, affecting nothing less than the health of both the wireless and broadcast businesses, not to mention the mobile wireless market and the reputation of the FCC.

New GOP commissioner Ajit Pai seemed to find the current rulemaking fell short, calling it a “starting point.”

“Unfortunately it does not ask all the questions it needs to asked,” said Pai. He also pointed out that the there was no schedule leading up to the June 30, 2014 date set for holding the auctions. “When do we need to issue the final rules?” he asked.

More than one commissioner, recognizing that the success of the auctions depends on broadcasters’ willingness to relinquish their spectrum, included a few pitches directed to broadcasters in their remarks.

“Spectrum auctions are an opportunity for broadcasters to take advantage of a once in a lifetime financial opportunity,” Genachowski said.

Broadcasters, keeping an eagle eye on the FCC’s spectrum auction proceedings, plan to hold a press conference later this afternoon.