FCC's Wheeler Defends Low-Band Spectrum Carve-Out

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has responded to a letter from House Democrats earlier this week (78 in all) asking him to have an open incentive auction that does not limit participants, saying that "all who want to participate in the incentive auction will be able to bid."

But the rest of that thought was that "at the same time, a priority of the auction should be to assure that companies that already possess low-band spectrum do not exploit the auction to keep competitors from accessing the spectrum necessary to provide competition."

"I will shortly present a draft order to my fellow Commissioners designed to ensure that every mobile wireless provider has the opportunity to bid in every market, and that every consumer enjoys the benefits of a competitive wireless marketplace," he said. "My proposal would reserve a modest amount of this low-band spectrum in each market for providers that, as a result of the historical accident of previous spectrum assignments, lack such low-band capacity. This proposal will also contain safeguards to ensure that all bidders for reserved spectrum licenses bear a fair share of the cost of making incentive payments to broadcasters who voluntarily relinquish some or all of their spectrum usage rights."

AT&T, for one, has said the FCC's proposal could limit its participation in markets serving 70% of wireless customers nationwide and cause it to rethink whether to participate at all.

Wheeler, in the letter to lead signatory Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), said that access to low-band spectrum was particularly important in rural areas to fill in the "blank white spaces" in coverage maps in TV commercials.

Wheeler included a coupe of those maps in his letter to illustrate his point. He pointed out that most of the low-band spectrum is in the hands of just two providers, though he did not identify them as AT&T and Verizon, which they are.

"Chairman Wheeler’s philosophy is simple and consistent: Wireless competition is in the public interest. When he raises concerns about consolidation, it’s aimed at preserving consumer choice," said an FCC official on background. "When he proposes reasonable rules of the road to prevent a single company to run the table at the incentive auction, he is speaking on behalf of consumers and competition."

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.