Big Tech Joins Challenge to FCC’s Northstar Spectrum Smackdown

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Computer companies want the Supreme Court to reverse the Federal Communications Commission's decision to deny Northstar Wireless billions of dollars in designated-entity bidding credits in its AWS-3 spectrum auction, arguing the decision was a case of illegal government overreach.

The Computer & Communications Association has joined an amicus brief by The Phoenix Center and four others supporting Northstar’s appeal of that decision on due-process grounds.

CCIA and company said if the FCC had problems with Northstar, it should have it should have stopped the auction “before the omelette was scrambled.” Northstar followed the rules, it argued, but the FCC “moved the goalposts” because it was unhappy with the auction result.

The brief does not mince words: “The Commission disavowed its prior decisions, treated the Petitioner inconsistently from entities that previously qualified for Designated Entity benefits, and even treated the Petitioner differently from other applicants for such benefits in the same auction. Disparate treatment like this can only happen when an agency feels unconstrained by the ordinary bounds our Constitutional system imposes on those who wield government power.”

FCC commissioners had unanimously ruled that Dish Network improperly received a $3.3 billion government discount on a winning bid for $12 billion worth of wireless spectrum purchased at the 2015 auction. The discount was tied to an FCC program aimed at helping small businesses obtain spectrum. Dish Network chairman Charlie Ergen claimed that the winning bidder — Northstar — is a separate company from Dish.

The FCC disagreed, ruling that Dish owned 85% of Northstar. The agency fined Dish $500 million and decided to force Dish/Northstar to forfeit $3.3 billion worth of the spectrum.

Northstar appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which has primary jurisdiction over FCC decisions. In June of 2022, that court backed the FCC, setting up the appeal to the Supreme Court, which has not decided whether to take the case. ▪️

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.