Report: Columbia Capital, other investment firms eye FCC's 600 MHz incentive auction

Some major cable companies have expressed lukewarm interest in the FCC's upcoming incentive auction of TV broadcasters' 600 MHz spectrum, but at least one Beltway-area investment firm is planning to participate, according to The Washington Post.

Citing an unnamed "person with knowledge of the matter," the newspaper said Columbia Capital out of Alexandria, Va., plans to bid during the auction. Other investment firms "have been conducting their own analyses on the value of these airwaves" as well, the Post reported, setting the stage for a potential bidding war among financial companies, cable broadband providers, mobile carriers and perhaps other tech-industry companies.

Columbia Capital is no stranger to wireless: Its founder, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), helped companies come to market in the industry's early days, and in January the firm hired John Leibovitz, who stepped down from his post as deputy chief of the wireless bureau at the FCC last year.

But interest from outside groups is good news for the FCC, which is hoping to generate massive bids during the auction; some have predicted the event may generate $45 billion in bids or more. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said he expects a "spectrum extravaganza" at auction. However, tightened carrier budgets may forestall any all-out bidding wars, as Bloomberg recently reported. Also, Charter Communications recently said it's unlikely to participate, and Comcast indicated it "is taking a paddle" but isn't planning to spend big in the auction.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration this week proposed a new "spectrum license user fee" in the budget for fiscal year 2017 this week, prompting an immediate response from CTIA. "CTIA is opposed to new spectrum fees," said Jot Carpenter, the organization's vice president for government affairs, in a prepared statement. "Fees would be a tax that will depress auction revenues, harm investment and do nothing to free up additional bands of spectrum or advance consumers' adoption of wireless broadband services."

And in other auction news, Joan Marsh, AT&T's vice president of federal regulatory affairs, expressed concerns about the FCC's preparations for both the auction itself as well as the spectrum repacking that must be done after the auction as TV broadcasters vacate their current airwaves and move to other channels.

"We are less than 60 days from the start of the auction and forward auction bidders still have had no direct access to the new and complicated software package that will control this auction," Marsh wrote on AT&T's Public Policy Blog. "Practice rounds with the software are essential and while the FCC has made clear bidders will get practice rounds, it appears that we won't get them until after the auction opens and the initial band plan is released, which likely means not until May. That will give us little time to incorporate the learnings from the practice round before bidders are qualified and the official mock auction begins."

And Marsh once again questioned the FCC's adoption of a 39-month deadline for repacking following the conclusion of the auction, claiming that "there is no analytical framework behind that deadline." Rather than stick to the established timeline, Marsh implored the FCC to impose "realistic and enforceable deadlines" that ensure repacking can be done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

"Make no mistake -- we are strapping on our climbing gear and readying our oxygen tanks," wrote Marsh, comparing the auction to an Everest ascent. "When the time comes to leave base camp, we will be ready to continue to climb. The question is what surprises the mountain will hold for us before the climb is concluded."

For more:
- see this Washington Post report
- see this B&C article
- see this Multichannel News article
- read AT&T's Public Policy Blog post

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