Google, FCC, lawmakers wrangle over conditions, management of incentive spectrum auctions

LAS VEGAS--While lawmakers and regulators acknowledge the nation's need for more mobile broadband spectrum, it doesn't appear those airwaves will become available anytime soon. And how that spectrum will be made available to users is still under debate.

The topic of spectrum for mobile broadband came up in several different venues here at the Consumer Electronics Show. And statements by the likes of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Senior Policy Counsel Rick Whitt and others reveal wide gaps in consensus on how to move forward.

"My message today is simple. We need to get it done now and we need to get it done right," Genachowksi said. "Few areas hold more promise for creating jobs than mobile."

Up for grabs is an estimated $25 billion that could be generated by the auction of spectrum licenses currently held by the nation's local TV broadcasters. Congress must first authorize the release of those licenses to the FCC for auction (broadcasters would get a cut of auction revenues in return for giving up those licenses), and legislation winding through the Senate and House would permit those auctions. However, current versions of that legislation would put stipulations on how the FCC goes about auctioning the spectrum, stipulations that the FCC argues will hinder its ability to effectively sell the airwaves to interested parties.

On the legislator side of the argument was Neil Fried, senior telecommunications counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, who said during a CES panel session that the FCC shouldn't be allowed to put stipulations like open access on the spectrum licenses. The FCC put open access provisions on portions of the 700 MHz spectrum it auctioned in 2008, licenses that Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) ultimately won in the auction.

But the FCC's Rick Kaplan, chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, argued that the agency should be free to manage the auction as it sees fit, and noted that the FCC has successfully conducted more than 80 spectrum auctions.

Another point of contention among those at the CES spectrum session was whether portions of the TV broadcasters' spectrum should be made available for unlicensed use. Fried said that spectrum at 700 MHz and below should be auctioned off in a licensed scenario since wireless carriers and others could then build it out for wide area mobile broadband networks. Fried described the spectrum as "beachfront property" that should be auctioned.

However, Google's Whitt said that at least a portion of TV broadcasters' spectrum should be devoted to unlicensed use. "We want a couple of public beaches," he said.

Though Tom Power, who is part of the White House's office of science and technology, said President Obama hasn't taken a specific position on the matter of licensed vs. unlicensed spectrum, he said the availability of unlicensed spectrum has helped generate significant innovations. He pointed to Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad, which makes use of unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum, and questioned whether Apple would have developed the device in the absence of unlicensed Wi-Fi.

Finally, the FCC's Kaplan pointed out that even if arguments over incentive auctions are resolved, the process of auctioning the spectrum will still take years. "We're looking at a 3-5 year problem that we're trying to solve," he said.

For more:
- see this IDG News Service article
- see this Broadcasting & Cable article
- see this Forbes article

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