FCC's Wheeler promises to work with broadcasters ahead of incentive auctions

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he is proud of his background in the wireless industry, but that his goal now is to look out for the American people and ensure effective competition. He also said one of his main priorities right now is ensuring that broadcasters relinquish enough of their wireless spectrum to guarantee the success of the agency's upcoming incentive auctions, which could come to define his tenure as chairman.

In an interview with FierceWireless, Wheeler said he was proud "to be involved in the wireless industry in its nascent days." Wheeler was president of the CTIA from 1992 to 2003 before joining D.C.-based venture capital firm Core Capital Partners as managing director in 2005. However, he said it's been almost 10 years since he was involved with the CTIA and that while he thinks he "probably knows more than your average bear" about how the industry operates, he has a different role now.

"Today my job is to advocate for the American public. And I want to be the best possible advocate for my new client," he said.

Wheeler will need to help decide the rules on incentive auctions of broadcast TV spectrum, scheduled for early next year. Wireless carriers have been fighting for months over whether there should be caps on how much spectrum carriers can acquire, with AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) arguing against such restrictions and Sprint (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) generally pushing for them. Wheeler has so far declined to take a position on the debate.

However, the whole debate will largely be a moot point if the FCC can't persuade enough broadcasters to give up their spectrum for auction in the first place. The best-case scenario the FCC is hoping for is for broadcasters to give up 120 MHz of spectrum, but that will largely be determined by how much money broadcasters think they will get for the airwaves in the auction.  

"It would be a mess if you gave a party and nobody came," Wheeler said, acknowledging that broadcasters' participation is crucial.

Wheeler said he looks forward "to ongoing discussions with broadcasters." The FCC has two goals in mind with the auctions, he said. One is "how broadcasters and investors can receive a return on their investment," and the second is "how we, as the trustees of American spectrum, can ensure the most efficient use of that American asset."

"I don't believe that those are incompatible," he said.

On another hot-button issue, net neutrality, Wheeler said the FCC will await a decision on its "Open Internet" net neutrality rules from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Some analysts have said the court is poised to strike the rules down.

However, Wheeler said he disagreed with Sprint CEO Dan Hesse's recent characterization of net neutrality of potentially unfair. Net neutrality "is actually a hard concept for me to get my head around. It's like telling the airlines you can't sell first class seats," Hesse told The Verge.

Wheeler noted the rules allow wireless carriers to engage in reasonable network management, which is defined as actions that are "appropriate and tailored to a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account network architecture."

Wheeler said he would use three "prisms" to make decisions as chairman. One of the prisms is what he calls "the network compact." He said there "has always been a set of values that people could rely on in their relation to the networks."

"As the network changes, the specifics of how those values get expressed is clearly going to change," he said. "But the values are not. And so we need to make sure we're looking through a prism of, how does this stack up against the values that people have come to expect?"

Another prism is how best to promote economic growth and innovation through competition, and another is enabling networks to deliver new services, he said.

On the agenda for the FCC's first open meeting next week is a presentation on a new Android  app that will be used to crowdsource measurements of mobile broadband speeds.

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)

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