FCC's Wheeler signals intent to let smaller carriers get more spectrum

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler indicated in his first major policy address as chairman that one of the agency's key goals is ensuring that all carriers have enough spectrum to compete and operate their networks.

In an address Monday at his alma mater, Ohio State University, Wheeler signaled that he will vigilantly protect competition. He also appeared to wade into a raging debate in the wireless industry over how much spectrum wireless carriers will be able to acquire at the forthcoming incentive of auctions of 600 MHz broadcast spectrum.

"Spectrum is finite, and the FCC is charged with managing the airwaves that are used for commercial purposes," Wheeler said. "A key goal of our spectrum allocation efforts is ensuring that multiple carriers have access to airwaves needed to operate their networks. The importance of such competition was reinforced by a filing with the Commission from the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice last April."

The DOJ filing last April sparked a firestorm of debate in the industry. "The Department concludes that rules that ensure the smaller nationwide networks, which currently lack substantial low-frequency spectrum, have an opportunity to acquire such spectrum could improve the competitive dynamic among nationwide carriers and benefit consumers," the antitrust division wrote.

AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) have been arguing against restrictions on how much spectrum carriers can acquire in the auctions, saying it would amount to picking winners and losers. But smaller carriers including Sprint (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) are generally pushing for such restrictions. The FCC is still formulating final rules for the auctions, which are tentatively scheduled to begin next year.

In terms of competition more broadly, Wheeler noted that, when reviewing AT&T's proposed 2011 acquisition of T-Mobile, the "FCC refused to give the go-ahead to a deal that could have pushed us toward a duopoly. And look at what happened. Following the signal that the FCC is committed to a competitive mobile marketplace, both T-Mobile and Sprint have been able to attract significant investment capital to build out their networks and increase competition in the mobile industry."

Wheeler said the FCC's "goal should be to ask how competition can best serve the public--and what, if any, action (including governmental action) is needed to preserve the future of network competition in wired or wireless networks."

On another hot-button issue, Wheeler tiptoed around the issue of the FCC's rules on net neutrality, whose fate is currently being decided by a federal appeals court. He said the "Internet is not a law-free zone. It depends upon standards of conduct. And it depends upon the ability of the government to intervene in the event of aggravated circumstances."

"Now, before anyone translates this into a call to 'Regulate the Internet,' let me be clear. 'Regulating the Internet' is a non-starter," he said. "What the Internet does is an activity in which policy makers should be extremely circumspect. The United States' policy strongly favors Internet Freedom, limiting government involvement to over-riding purposes such as the completion of 911 calls or the ban on child pornography.  Assuring that the Internet exists, however, as a collection of open, interconnected entities is an appropriate activity for the people's representatives." He also added that "the right of access also means the ability of users to access all lawful content on a network. That's why the FCC adopted enforceable rules to preserve the Open Internet."

Wheeler's speech came in conjunction with the publishing of an ebook he wrote, "Net Effects: The Past, Present and Future Impact of our Networks." The ebook builds on a passion of Wheeler's, history, and explores the history of three network revolutions: the printing press, the railroad, and the telegraph and telephony. It also discusses how what Wheeler sees as the fourth network revolution, digital communications, will be informed by those experiences. Wheeler has written two books on the Civil War, and said Monday that when President Obama nominated him to serve as FCC chairman, he was working on a third book, about the great network revolutions in history.

For more:
- see Wheeler's remarks (PDF)
- see Wheeler's ebook
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this NYT article
- see this National Journal article

Special Report: Tom Wheeler, Chairman, FCC - Most Powerful Person in Wireless and Wireline

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