FCC poised to get authority to conduct incentive auctions of broadcast spectrum

After years of legislative back-and-forth, it appears that Congress will finally authorize the FCC to conduct incentive auctions of broadcast TV spectrum for mobile broadband use. The authorization is expected to be rolled into a broader package to continue a payroll tax cut and extend unemployment benefits that Congress is expected to approve by Friday.

Details of the final legislation remain murky, but according to reports the authorizing language will be in the final bills. Also in the legislation is Sen. Jay Rockefeller's (D-W.Va.) plan to authorize the creation of a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network and have it paid for through revenue gained from the incentive auctions, according to a Broadcasting & Cable article.

The FCC has been calling for incentive auction authority since 2010, and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has made reclaiming up to 120 MHz of broadcast spectrum for wireless a centerpiece of his national broadband plan. The CTIA has pushed heavily for the auctions. However, the auctions are likely to take years to set up and conduct. At stake is an estimated $25 billion that could be generated by the auction of spectrum licenses currently held by the nation's local TV broadcasters, which have pushed for the auctions to be purely voluntary in nature.

One thorny issue that emerged during the past few weeks is what kind of authority the FCC will have to set auction rules. Genachowski has argued that Congress should not limit the commission's authority to set rules, a position that has been backed by top executives from Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), T-Mobile USA, Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP) and other small carriers. AT&T (NYSE:T) has warned that if the FCC is allowed to bar certain companies from participating in the auctions through its rules, the FCC will essentially be picking winners and losers for the auction. According to both Reuters and Broadcasting & Cable, the FCC would have to open for public comment any decision to limit participation of a company in the auctions, but would not be barred from adopting rules that promote competition.

For more:
- see this Reuters article
- see this Broadcasting & Cable article

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