CBA's Pitsch: FCC C-Band Auction Could Mean Legal Delays

The C-Band Alliance has a few bones to pick with the testimony at an Oct. 29 House Communications Subcommittee hearing on "Repurposing the C-Band to Benefit All Americans," including arguing that it is an FCC auction that could result in legal delays that could hurt the U.S. in its race to win in 5G.

That came in a letter to the chair and ranking member of the House Communications Subcommittee, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Bob Latta (R-Ohio), respectively from CBA's Peter Pitsch.

Related: AT&T Pushes Variation on C-Band Private Auction Theme

FCC chair Ajit Pai has said winning that race is an imperative, as has President Donald Trump.

At that Hill hearing last week, committee members appeared to be clearly leaning toward an FCC-led public auction of C-Band spectrum over a private sale, the latter which the alliance has proposed.

The alliance, comprising foreign satellite companies, says a private-market sale--of about 300 Mhz of spectrum--rather than that FCC public auction, will get the spectrum into the hands of carriers for 5G faster while still protecting the incumbent cable operators and broadcasters who get their network programming from distributors via C-Band satellite spectrum and providing some money to the treasury.

Related: CBA Proposes to Up C-Band Clearance to 300 MHz

Hearing witnesses said that a private-market sale would generate legal blowback that could delay freeing up the spectrum for 5G because, critics argued, it was not clear the FCC had the authority to hand over the spectrum for a private sale with the money--potentially tens of billions of dollars--going to satellite operators rather than the treasury.

But in a letter to the leadership of that subcommittee, CBA EVP Peter Pitsch said that it is an FCC-run auction that is likely to prompt the delays in getting the critical midband C-Band spectrum into carriers' hands, delays while China was moving ahead in the race to 5G.

"Several parties, including the CBA, have raised concerns that the FCC lacks the authority to confiscate C-band spectrum without compensating the satellite operators that currently use the spectrum to deliver valuable services throughout the United States," said Pitsch. "Given this legal uncertainty, an FCC auction— which likely could not even be scheduled until mid-2021, at the earliest—is bound to be delayed by protracted litigation, slowing the transition of critical C-band spectrum for 5G operations."

By contrast, the CBA proposal would have the voluntary buy-in of the satellite spectrum license holders so there would be no legally-complicating "confiscation" issue.

FCC officials speaking on background during the broadcast spectrum incentive auction--also another effort to clear sweet-spot spectrum for 5G--signaled that if broadcasters did not voluntarily give up their spectrum for auction (and a cut of the proceeds), the FCC could indeed take back the licenses without compensation if it concluded that was in the public interest. 

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.