FCC Approves TV Broadband Incentive Auction Plan

Some commissioners voted for the plan despite lingering questions
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A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plan to auction broadcast television spectrum was approved Friday despite some commissioners saying several questions about the proposal—which is in the form of a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM)—have not been answered.
Under the NPRM—which is formally titled Expanding the Economic and Innovative Opportunities of Spectrum Through Incentive Auctions—the FCC would be the sole purchaser of TV spectrum that individual stations would surrender. The commission would conduct the TV spectrum auction, the first major auction of spectrum since 2008, to provide more frequencies for wireless-service providers such as AT&T Inc., Verizon and others to meet the demand for airwaves used by mobile devices such as tablet computers and smartphones. The FCC seeks to begin such auctions of broadband spectrum by June 30, 2014.
The commission unanimously approved the NPRM, but not before some commissioners raised questions about the auction process.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai provided the commission with detailed questions about the NPRM. Those questions are:

  • Closing conditions, should the FCC amend auction design and closing conditions to produce funds for the first responder network authority, state and local first responders, public safety research, deficit reduction or next-generation 9-1-1 implementation?
  • Broadcast relocation fund, what does the FCC do if the broadcast relocation fund, which is capped at $1.75 billion, is insufficient to compensate broadcasters and cable operators for their relocation costs?
  • Size of guard bands, the statute requires guard bands be no larger than is technically reasonable to prevent harmful interference between licensed services outside the guard bands, and the NPRM says 6 MHz guard bands protect TV broadcasting and wireless services. But, would a smaller guard band of 4 MHz or 5 MHz be technically reasonable and allow for the auction to produce more revenue? And does the statute require the FCC to auction the guard bands?
  • Channel sharing, should both parties to a channel-sharing arrangement file pre-auction applications and participate in the auction? And, should there be channel sharing by low-power broadcast stations in markets where they are likely to be displaced?
  • Translators are critical to rural communities, so what can the FCC do within the constraints of the Spectrum Act so that communications link is not broken?
  • With the deadline to reach the goal of conducting broadband spectrum auctions is June 30, 2014, when does the FCC need to issue final rules and auction procedures?

Following the meeting Pai told Government Video that he does not believe the NPRM should be delayed, but it is “good to ask questions” about “very complex” proposals such as the spectrum auction NPRM. “That said, I did support a number of proposals in the NPRM to kick start this rulemaking process,” he said, adding “We’re [the FCC] required by law, and the marketplace, to undertake this law sooner than later, so to that extent I support it.”
In addition, Commissioner Robert McDowell also had several questions about the NPRM and auction process. Those questions are:

  • Whether the proposed five megahertz channel blocks would result in a band plan that reserves too much spectrum for unlicensed use, contrary to congress’s explicit intent?
  • Whether auctioning spectrum in six megahertz channels, that is, on a broadcast channel-by-channel basis, would be more intuitive and thus lead to a more efficient and fruitful auction?
  • Whether the commission will attempt to adopt rules or policies that run contrary to the directives of the statute either directly or indirectly?
  • Whether adopting 6 MHz guard bands (as proposed) is necessary to prevent harmful interference given the technological improvements that may come over the horizon after the rules have been adopted?
  • Whether the proposals for determining future broadcast channel assignments and reverse auction winners would result in a process that is as objective and transparent as it must be?
  • Whether issues related to the coexistence of Lower 700 MHz “A Block” operations and those of neighboring TV channel 51 are resolved prior to the auctions?
  • Whether imposing spectrum caps prior to the auction would exclude specific potential bidders thus producing the net result of frustrating Congress’s directive that the commission attempt to raise at least $7 billion for a nationwide, interoperable public safety network?
  • Whether the commission would be able to finish its work without undertaking a further notice and comment?

“This being, literally, the most complex spectrum auction in world history, I think we should keep all of our options open, including measuring twice before making the cut, as carpenters say,” McDowell said.
So far, the FCC has only issued a “brief summary” of the incentive auction NPRM, and it has not said with the full NPRM will be issued. When the NPRM is issued, the commission will seek comments from stakeholders and the public, the agency says.

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