FCC Commissioners Face Questions About Looming ‘Incentive’ Spectrum Auctions

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by Paul Barbagallo  

All five members of the Federal Communications Commission testified on Capitol Hill March 12 at what could be the final congressional oversight hearing for the Julius Genachowski-led FCC.

While Chairman Genachowski has not announced his plans to step down, he is widely expected to vacate the top FCC job in President Obama's second term.

At the outset of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) keyed in on Genachowski's status, questioning whether the FCC could realistically meet its self-imposed deadlines for conducting the first-ever “incentive auctions” of spectrum if Genachowski resigns.

The FCC is working to finalize the rules for the auction in 2013 with hopes of holding the auction in 2014. Such a timeline may prove difficult to meet amid a change in leadership at the commission, Thune said.

Genachowski Dodges Question

Genachowski dodged the question, saying only that incentive auctions remain the agency's highest priority.

Commissioner Robert McDowell, the senior Republican member of the agency, expressed optimism that the FCC will meet its self-imposed deadlines, but urged caution.

“While I have always been a proponent of shot clocks … let us not be surprised if something unforeseen arises,” McDowell said.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the senior Democrat behind Genachowski, similarly characterized the FCC's timeline as “aggressive and ambitious,” but attainable.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, the junior Democrat, said the deadlines “focus the mind, and make clear to stakeholders how to focus their activities…” and will be critical for the incentive-auction rulemaking process.

Commissioner Ajit Pai said the agency should work to eliminate as much uncertainty hanging over both wireless carriers and television broadcasting sectors. He cautioned, too, that the auctions will be a “failure” if the agency cannot persuade broadcasters to participate.

The agency is trying to reclaim airwaves now used for broadcast television and auction them off to carriers led by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc., with a portion of the proceeds paid to the broadcasters. Even at this early stage in the process, agency officials anticipate a return of between 60 and 80 megahertz from broadcasters, roughly half of the amount contemplated when the FCC released the National Broadband Plan in 2010.

Such a result undoubtedly would be disheartening to the president and to Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, who are counting on incentive auctions to generate as much as $15 billion in revenue, $7 billion of which would go toward building a new nationwide emergency communications network for public safety officials, the last unfulfilled recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.

The broadcast TV spectrum is seen as crucial to wireless carriers to help meet the ever-increasing consumer demand for smartphones and tablet computers, which require more radio spectrum to carry their data transmissions--significantly more than what is needed to carry cellular telephone calls.

'Full Audit’ of Federal Spectrum Needed, McDowell Says

Regardless of how much spectrum the FCC reclaims from broadcasters, the pressure will increase on the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration to pry loose frequencies from federal government agencies.

Though much of the attention has been on sharing the airwaves, McDowell called for a full audit of federal spectrum.

“Right now the process is too opaque,” McDowell said, adding that many federal agencies do not use all of their spectrum all of the time.

The primary goal of policymakers should not be to explore possibilities for sharing but rather what spectrum can be “cleared” for “exclusive use licenses,” he added.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.V.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, announced at the close of the hearing that he will convene a classified briefing next week with the Department of Defense to better understand how the Pentagon uses radio spectrum, the latest indication that Congress will continue to work to find space on the nation's congested airwaves for future mobile broadband uses.

For more on the hearing, visit http://commerce.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=Hearings&ContentRecord_id=18f83ea5-3d7d-4ef9-92ad-30a3421c11d3&ContentType_id=14f995b9-dfa5-407a-9d35-56cc7152a7ed&Group_id=b06c39af-e033-4cba-9221-de668ca1978a&MonthDisplay=3&YearDisplay=2013.

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