Economists Plug Incentive Auctions at White House Event

WASHINGTON: The Obama Administration’s campaign to reassign broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband is now focused on securing Congressional authorization for incentive auctions. The White House today hosted an summit on the issue, inviting a bevy of economists, Federal Communications Chief Julius Genachowski, and no broadcasters.

Genachowski said incentive auctions were “the single most important step we can take” to free up spectrum.

Gregory Rosston, deputy director of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research brought with him a letter signed by 112 economists “who specialize in telecommunications, auction theory and design, and/or competitive policy.”

“We understand that Congress is considering legislation that would give the FCC explicit authority to run ‘incentive auctions’ in which it would have the ability to distribute some portion of the auction proceeds to licensees who voluntarily give up their license rights,” it reads. “We support such an effort and think it would increase spectrum efficiency in the United States.”

The administration’s National Broadband Plan proposes that broadcasters who relinquish spectrum receive a cut of the resulting auction proceeds. The scheme would require Congressional authorization, which has not yet been deemed a slam dunk, particularly with broadcast and wireless lobbies duking it out in Washington.

National Association of Broadcasters chief Gordon Smith called out Dish Network and Time Warner Cable in January for sitting on unused spectrum. Smith asked lawmakers to investigate. Wireless industry lobby chief Steve Largent said Smith’s tactic was “baffling,” and reiterated his constituents’ need for more spectrum.

So far on Capitol Hill, Fred Upton (R-Mich.), head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said a spectrum bill in the House would “likely” include incentive auction authority. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-W.V.) offered a bill to do so in the Senate in January. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced a bill last month authorizing incentive auctions but also ordering a spectrum inventory.

Lawmakers were urged by the economists at today’s White House event to trust the FCC to get the incentive auction rules right, according to Hillicon Valley. However, the commission hasn’t historically been in the best graces of Congress, which often drags the commissioners up the Hill to explain themselves. They were hauled up in February for a grilling about their rules on network neutrality, about which lawmakers generally are divided down the aisle.

With regard to spectrum, Upton said the commission was “gamed” by Google in 2008 when the search giant submitted a spectrum bid crafted to open white spaces.

~ Deborah D. McAdams