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FCC Delays Action On Spectrum Auction Rules

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has delayed until at least August consideration of procedural rules for the upcoming incentive auction of spectrum and repacking of the broadcast airwaves after the auction.

The related review of the Mobile Spectrum Holdings Report and Order has also been postponed. Deferring the latter item gives T-Mobile -- whose proposal had seemed destined to be rejected -- and other carriers more time to seek a bigger role in the airwaves auction.

In a letter this afternoon, Wheeler responded to the request from two House Republicans that the agency delay action in the wake of last-minute information that affects the spectrum repacking -- namely use of the "duplex gap" in some markets.

Wheeler's true motivation to postpone a vote might be that commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, one of his usual Democratic allies, was not going to support him, due to her concern about the duplex gap issue. She had hoped that the same frequencies nationwide would be reserved for unlicensed use after the broadcast repacking, but the latest simulations did not guarantee that structure. 

It was unclear how or if the FCC staff would revamp the simulations in the next three weeks before the regularly scheduled Aug. 6 meeting.

In his letter to Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of its Communications and Technology Subcommittee, Wheeler cited "the spirit of cooperation that has marked our work together on the incentive auctions." The auction target date in "the first quarter of 2016" is still on course, Wheeler insisted, despite the short delay in its rulemaking vote.

He also used the letter to "lay out the facts underling our decision on Friday to release additional data" about spectrum clearning scenarios.

"The purpose of releasing the data was to demonstrate to broadcasters and the unlicensed  community the de minimis impact of the duplex gap option at multiple levels of license participation," he continued. "It is worth noting that the full Commission sought comment on whether the auction system should be able to assign stations to the duplex gap in December 2014, asking specifically about this point as part of our release of proposed auction procedures." 

In a lengthy statement about the decision to delay the procedures vote, Commissioner Ajit Pai offered two suggestions for action before the Aug. 6 meeting. He criticized the late release on Friday of the staff simulations and singled out the Chairman's office because it  "did not afford the Commissioners enough time to analyze either the data or the comments about that data."

"We should not be forced to review comments less than 24 hours before we vote on a matter that will have long-term consequences for the future of our nation’s broadcast and wireless industries," Pai said. He recommended that during the week of July 27, the Commission should hold an en banc hearing to consider issues pertaining to band plan variability and the appropriate placement of  broadcast stations, if necessary, in the wireless portion of the 600 MHz band.

"Let’s invite broadcasters, wireless carriers, and unlicensed advocates to testify. ...  Let’s see where there is disagreement and try to forge common ground." 

He also suggested that the Commission "should immediately release all of the data pertaining to the staff’s simulations."

"In particular, we should not make decisions on a future band plan based on only two simulations per clearing target."

NAB EVP of Communications Dennis Wharton issued a statement also focused on the last-minute simulations, citing the confusion they caused.

“The FCC’s original incentive auction order fashioned a careful compromise allowing licensed wireless microphones and unlicensed users to operate in the duplex gap," Wharton said. "The FCC could easily have voted tomorrow on an order maintaining this balanced approach and not delayed the process. Instead, the Commission has produced no explanation for its about-face and has left stakeholders baffled as to why it is walking away from previous commitments. It’s time for the FCC to engage stakeholders in a transparent, data-driven manner, and come to a successful resolution of this issue.”