FCC Auction Task Force to Oversee Aftermath

WASHINGTON—The team brought on at the Federal Communications Commission to create the incentive auction architecture will stay on for the repack and the spectrum hand-off, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told lawmakers this week.

“I recognize that getting the transition right is as important as getting the auction itself right,” he said in his prepared statement before the oversight hearing held by the Senate Commerce Committee. “Like the auction, the transition will be a complex, multi-disciplinary effort that will span several years. The task force approach has served us well in designing and implementing the auction, and I believe it is the appropriate structure for ensuring that the transition has the focus and attention it requires. I therefore intend to maintain the task force when the auction is complete; as we move forward, its mission will evolve from auction to transition.”

The FCC Incentive Auction Task Force is led by Gary Epstein, who previously was the Common Carrier Bureau chief under Chairman Mark Fowler, and the first head of the DTV transition efforts under Acting Chairman Michael Copps. Howard Symons is vice chair of the Task Force. His experience includes practicing telecom law in the private sector, senior counsel on the House telecom subcommittee, and an adjunct professorship at George Washington University’s National Law Center. Charlie Meisch serves as senior advisor for communications and public affairs.

Wheeler said the commission had been “focused on post-auction planning for over a year, including the release of the draft relocation reimbursement form and a reimbursement cost catalog, and we’ve already begun to pivot and to accelerate our planning for the post-auction transition.“

Tensions were high at the hearing. The partisan personalities of the commission were on display over issues such as its legislative authority and whether its actions have depressed broadband deployment.

Topics raised by congressional committee members were improvements to rural broadband deployment, the upcoming television incentive auction and innovation in the video market. 

Half way through the three-hour-long hearing, issues of disagreement bubbled to the surface regarding the commission’s stance on innovation and competition as it effects the Internet, and whether the rules that the FCC adopted in its Open Internet Order last year have spurred or limited innovation. In that order the FCC reclassified Internet providers’ offerings as telecommunications services under Title II of the Communications Act.

When called on to share his opinion, Commissioner Ajit Pai didn’t mince words.

“What we’ve seen is the fact that among providers, innovation is slowing,” he said. The industry is seeing one of the largest declines in broadband wireless investment due to the commission’s actions via the Open Internet Order and Title II, he said.

Wheeler disagreed: “With all due respect to my colleague, what he’s just portrayed as facts are not,” he said; rather, investment and usage of the Internet is up.

Back and forth squabbling ensued. “The regulatory infrastructure we have built is now depressing broadband investment,” Pai replied. “Facts speak for themselves.”

Members of the committee also asked for FCC action on issues such as cramming, which involves the addition of unauthorized charges on a consumer’s phone bill, and spoofing, in which a caller ID service is used to knowingly misidentify a caller.

Wrapping up the hearing was a question posed by Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) to Wheeler on whether he will follow precedent and commit to resigning his chairmanship after a new president is elected in November. The FCC chairman traditionally resigns his chair unless asked to remain at the helm by the newly elected president.

Wheeler told the panel that the election was too far in the future for him to make an ironclad commitment one way or another. Wheeler’s term officially ends in January 2018.
~ Deborah D. McAdams contributed to this story.

Also see
John Eggerton’s coverage of hearing involving Wheeler’s pledge to preserve low power TV stations and translators, in “Wheeler: We’ll Take Special Efforts to Help Displaced LPTVs.”
Wheeler explained that Congress did not establish any priority for LPTVs. He said the FCC won’t know what the spectrum layout will look like afterwards. He said the the FCC has said that “heaven forbid there is a situation”—presumably being an LPTV’s channel is needed to repack a full power, or perhaps even be freed up for unlicensed—the commission will help them find a new channel, or share a channel, including with a Class A LPTV, which would give them more “oomph.”

Learn more about the post-incentive auction channel repack Tuesday, March 8, during an exclusive Webinar featuring the FCC’s Howard Symons; NAB’s Patrick McFadden and RF experts Jay Adrick and S. Merrill Weiss. Registerhere.

Susan Ashworth

Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.