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AT&T’s Stephenson says broadcast auctions are necessary to ease ‘spectrum crisis’

AT&T Chairman Randall Stephenson said his wireless signal carrier company would run out of spectrum — sooner than many had predicted — even with the FCC’s efforts to free up airwaves from television broadcasters.

“The problem at AT&T is that we are now in many markets approaching exhaust in our spectrum position,” he told the Media Institute last week in Washington, DC. “We are basically running out of capacity. We’re out of spectrum.”

As chaotic as the previous four years has been in wireless technologies, Stephenson said, the next five years will trump that — “the smart phone revolution has just begun.” High-definition video conferencing on mobile devices and medical imaging will be commonplace, he said, while access to content will be seamless “across all networks and across all devices” on mobile broadband networks.

Like FCC chairman Julius Genachowski before him, Stephenson made a pitch for mobile broadband as the great democratizer of Internet access.

“The people in rural America and small towns and inner cities are not going to be excluded,” he said.

He appeared to endorse the FCC’s request for a mobility fund — money the commission is planning to set aside to subsidize wireless broadband in its Universal Service Fund reforms.

Stephenson evoked the Arab Spring movement that has been driven by social media.

“Think about what happens when tower requirements begin to get smaller, the network technologies get better, the devices shrink and you have ready access to video streaming on very, very inexpensive devices,” he said.

The next generation, he said, will be revolutionary — but only with the required elements of “tax and regulatory policies that motivate and incentivize investment” and adequate spectrum, which he called “the other building block.”

Speaking earlier, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee and a former cell phone exec (Nextel), said that Congress should figure out a way to free up spectrum.

“It is important to think through in a rational way the long-term commitment to value that broadcasters have in terms of providing needed content to local communities,” he said. But, he said a voluntary auction plan “really makes sense.”

Wireless companies are planning to bid billions of dollars on reclaimed broadcast spectrum, with a portion of that going to deficit reduction after broadcasters and an emergency broadband communications network get their cuts.