Senate Hears Spectrum Auction Agendas

WASHINGTON — The TV spectrum incentive auction filled up a hearing room in the Russell Senate Office Building on a snow day in D.C., where a panel of witnesses brought their own specific interests to bear on lawmakers.

Much of the line of inquiry focused on the who and how of auction participation, instigated in part by differences between dominant and nondominant wireless carriers a la AT&T and Verizon versus everyone else. Smaller carriers and some public interest groups want bidding restrictions to assure the big carriers don’t walk away with all the TV spectrum proffered for auction.

AT&T’s Vice President of Federal Regulatory Affairs Joan Marsh said contrary to assertions that AT&T ruled the 2008 700 MHz spectrum auction, it indeed won licenses in only one of five blocks. She also spoke against “scoring” spectrum according to the population area covered by it, something favored by T-Mobile an Sprint to drive down the cost of spectrum. She also said that winners would need to pair spectrum in 10 MHz blocks (for uplink and downlink service).

Hal Singer, senior fellow of the Progressive Policy Institute, spoke out against bidding restrictions based on current holdings in given markets—“asymmetric spectrum caps,” he called them. He said such caps were are unnecessary because the Federal Communications Commission could “compel ex-post divestitures under existing law.” He also said the FCC should investigate if and how carriers with little or no low-band (sub-1 GHz) spectrum are impaired by not having it.

Steven K. Berry, president and CEO of Competitive Carriers Association, noted that Verizon and AT&T already controlled 80 percent of low-band spectrum, and that the FCC should reject bidding packages and practices that lock out smaller carriers.

Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, suggested limiting the number of licenses any one entity could win.

Preston Padden, executive director of Expanding Opportunities for Broadcasters Coalition, said more details were necessary to get more stations voluntarily to participate in the auction, including at what price bidding will begin. Padden’s Coalition consists of 70 licensees who want to participate.

“The FCC needs to tell broadcasters what the price range is going to be,” he said.

Marsh was asked about preserving white spaces, and said unlicensed devices could live in the 600 MHz guard bands under proper conditions.

“We’d be happy to consider any unlicensed uses that do not create interference,” she said.

Berry fielded a question about the wireless industry’s ongoing appetite for more and more spectrum, and if it would ever come to an end. He said technologies such as LTE will continue to move the industry forward, (though one of the problems with LTE is it cannot be deployed in spectrum where legacy 3G cellular transmission is used).

Sen. Bill Nelson (R-Fla.) asked Gary Epstein where the FCC was in the “auction technology information process.” Epstein is chairman of the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force and special advisor to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Epstein said the FCC had some of the “best software-design auction people in the world,” working on it.
The forward auction will reflect previous auctions; it’s the reverse auction—the initial process to determine broadcaster interest and participation—that’s never been done.

“Before we have this auction, we will have a mock auction, and have the actual participants do a stress test… before we go to market,” Epstein said.