Rosenworcel proposes incentive auctions for federal spectrum users

Could financial incentives succeed in prying federal agencies off spectrum they currently use to further their mission, just as the FCC hopes to do with TV broadcasters and their spectrum?

That’s precisely the remedy FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel suggested Nov. 13, 2012, in remarks given at a Washington, D.C., conference organized by the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado Law School.

The United States, which has seen a dramatic rise in the use of smartphones and tablet computers, will experience explosive growth in demand for spectrum over the next 10 years, as up to 50 billion machine-to-machine devices communicate wirelessly, said Rosenworcel.

“It is time to develop a series of incentives to serve as the catalyst for us to identify more spectrum for relocation,” she said regarding spectrum use by government agencies. “But what if we were to financially reward federal authorities for efficient use of their spectrum resource? What if they were able to reclaim a portion of the revenue from the subsequent re-auction of their airwaves?”

Speaking during the “Looking Back to Look Forward: The Next Ten Years of Spectrum Policy” conference, Rosenworcel said she believes these agencies would “make new choices about their missions and the resources they need to accomplish them,” if given a financial incentive to overcome disrupting established communications networks and radio systems.

To do so will require changing the dialog about federal spectrum. “We must work with our government partners so they can realize the value of their spectrum and the value of using it efficiently — instead of only seeing loss from its reallocation,” she said.

Addressing the ongoing rulemaking proceeding related to incentive auctions aimed at recouping broadcast spectrum, Rosenworcel identified four keys to success, including simplicity, fairness, balance and public safety. 

Although the incentive auction process, which includes a reverse auction, spectrum repacking and a forward auction, is inherently complex, it is necessary to make it as simple as possible at “every structural juncture,” she said. “Simplicity will yield more interest in the opportunities these auctions provide for broadcasters, and in turn, this will yield more spectrum.”

The auction must be fair as well, she said. “This is especially true with regard to the treatment of broadcasters that do not participate in the auction. Fairness demands that we consider how to accomplish repacking by minimizing unnecessary disruption and maximizing the ability of the public to continue to receive free, OTA television. At the same time, we ask that broadcasters make a fair assessment of the opportunities that this auction provides the industry.”

According to Rosenworcel, offering incentives for channel sharing and for relocating from UHF to VHF “can mean new resources for broadcasters.”