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Incentive auction success far from assured, says Kaplan

Failure of the FCC’s incentive auction to free TV spectrum for use by wireless companies is nearly certain if the agency insists on moving forward with the auction next year, according to the NAB’s point man on spectrum policy.

Speaking March 18 at The Media Institute’s Communications Forum luncheon in Washington, D.C., Rick Kaplan, NAB executive VP of Strategic Planning, said he is most fearful of an auction that fails to garner adequate participation to allow “a basic, nationwide commercial wireless band plan” to move ahead or one that results massive harmful interference between services.

Kaplan, who said the NAB would like to see the auction held as soon as possible and go off without a hitch, however, pointed to the association's desire to see it done right as paramount. That way broadcasters “can get on with the business of serving our communities in our traditional as well as new and innovative ways,” said Kaplan.

For this to happen, Kaplan, who formerly served as the chief of the FCC Wireless Bureau, said the agency’s proceeding cannot be “a run-of-the-mill” notice and comment rulemaking. “The commission can’t afford to get this one wrong, and thus needs to be as engaged as ever with industry and the public at large to ensure its decision-making is sound in practice,” he said. What must not happened is reviewing the comments and replies and then “churning out a Report and Order with the final answer.”

Saying the recent past of the FCC’s spectrum policy efforts “is littered with best-laid spectrum plans that have often gone awry,” Kaplan pointed to the 700MHz band plan and the aborted LightSquared effort to use the L-band as examples of what shouldn’t be allowed to happen with the incentive auction of TV spectrum. The former resulted in spectrum laying fallow, in part, because little attention was given to the engineering realities of placing high-powered TV broadcasters adjacent to wireless operators. The latter resulted in a wide swath of unused spectrum, with the exception of GPS receivers, he said.

According to Kaplan, the FCC’s proposal for the incentive auction and repacking includes equally daunting technical problems. Neither those from the wireless nor the broadcast industries think much on the FCC idea of splitting wireless uplinks and downlinks and interspersing them with high-powered TV broadcasters. Due to “overwhelming public rejection” of the split plan, Kaplan said he doubts the FCC will pursue it.

An even bigger issue, one that could undermine the entire effort, is a proposal in the commission’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that calls for “variable” band plans in adjacent markets around the country.

“There is just one problem with this approach,” he said. “Like its cousin, the ‘split’ plan, it simply doesn’t work. If you force broadcasters and wireless carriers to share channels in adjacent markets, one will interfere with the other. It’s basic engineering.”

Dealing with the interference means making sure there is enough geographic distance between the services. But doing so will mean the new wireless license areas will need to be so reduced in size that many will be virtually worthless, he explained.