House Panel Debates FCC’s Proposed Rules for Spectrum Auction

Geeky hearing over commission's authority under the law

The House communications and technology subcommittee held a hearing today to make sure that the Federal Communications Commission is “on track” to implement the world’s most complex auction of wireless spectrum.

Congressional expectations for the historic auction are high. If successful, it will lead to more spectrum for the wireless business to meet the demand of mobile-hungry consumers. As envisioned by lawmakers, the auction would also raise a few billion dollars for a debt-strapped U.S. treasury and create a $7 billion interoperable public safety network, made all the more pressing by natural disasters such as Sandy.

There’s a lot of pressure on the FCC to get it right, and the agency moved rather quickly since the act authorizing the auctions was passed as part of a larger budget bill in February. By September, the FCC had proposed rules for operating the auction, which could happen as soon as June 2014.

But this is Washington, and so the GOP and Dems differ over how the law should be interpreted and whether the FCC’s proposed rules will yield what was intended.

“An auction that gives away billions [of dollars] of cleared spectrum will be considered a failure,” said subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.). “The commission might be forgoing $19 billion of revenue under the current rules proposed. These are big numbers we are talking about.”

Revenue is tied to how much spectrum is auctioned, leading to a geeky debate over how big the “guard bands” protecting wireless and broadcast signals from interference should be. The GOP thought the bands as proposed were too big and fall short on revenue. But if the size of the bands were reduced, Dems were concerned there would be less unlicensed spectrum.

“We support the proposed rulemaking adopted … as it recognizes that nationwide guard bands needed for interference protection can simultaneously provide unlicensed access,” wrote Reps. Anna Eshoo (R-Calif.) and Darrell Issa (D-Calif.) in a letter to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski.

Dems also raised concerns about consolidation, though no member used the names AT&T and Verizon.

“The FCC must have the authority to write auction rules that aim to avoid the concentration of spectrum in the hands of just a small group of companies,” said ranking member Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Members also addressed what could be the ultimate deciding factor of the auction's success: whether enough TV broadcasters will voluntarily relinquish their spectrum. "If we don't see strong participation from the broadcasters, does the FCC have a fallback plan?" asked Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.)

Genachowski responded: "We think it [the auction] will work. I expect the broadcast industry will get the message."