FCC Approves Wireless Spectrum Incentive Auction Plan

The Federal Communications Commission unanimously approves order initiating rulemaking process for auctions to transfer spectrum from TV broadcasters to mobile broadband operators.

By Kenneth Corbin
Fri, September 28, 2012

CIO

FCC Wireless Spectrum Auction
The Federal Communications Commission Friday voted to initiate a rulemaking proceeding to set the guidelines for a series of auctions that aim to transfer wireless spectrum from television broadcasters to mobile broadband operators.

By a unanimous vote, the commission approved a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) seeking comments from interested parties on a proposal to move ahead with the auctions, which supporters say are necessary to furnish wireless operators with the capacity they need to keep up with the surging volume of data passing over their networks.

The FCC is proposing to hold so-called incentive auctions, whereby TV broadcasters will be invited to hand over their spectrum licenses, receiving a portion of the proceeds from the resale at auction.

"This is a big deal," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at the commission's monthly meeting. "Today the U.S. becomes the first nation in the world to launch incentive auctions, a new paradigm in spectrum policy that uses market forces to repurpose beachfront spectrum for licensed and unlicensed wireless broadband. The world is watching."

The FCC first proposed the idea for incentive auctions in its 2010 national broadband plan, of which spectrum reform to boost mobile broadband was a cornerstone. Earlier this year, with the passage of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, Congress granted the agency the authority it needed to implement the auction process.

By the timetable outlined in Friday's order, the FCC is hoping to finalize the rules for the auctions next year, with the actual proceedings to take place in 2014.

In the meantime, the FCC faces the tall order of writing the rules for a series of spectrum transactions that will be far more complex than any of the other auctions the agency has held.

"The analogy I make is it's like moving from two-dimensional chess to three-dimensional chess, and perhaps three-dimensional chess while blindfolded," said Commissioner Robert McDowell. "We all simply do not know where the facts will lead us."

McDowell and other commissioners raised some concerns about the details of the proposal, such as the split between licensed and unlicensed uses, and the volume of spectrum set aside to guard against interference, but all the members of the panel acknowledged that, in general, the NPRM is a necessary starting point.

The proposal consists of three parts, beginning with a reverse auction through which TV broadcasters would put their licenses into consideration for resale, determining the inventory of available airwaves.

Then, the FCC would begin the highly technical work of determining how to repackage its spectrum allocations to ensure that the bands slated for mobile broadband are put to optimal efficiency, while relocating and consolidating the remaining TV broadcasters into another portion of the airwaves.

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