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House Gets Earful on Auctions

The political divide over the FCC's incentive auction process was in evidence Tuesday at the House Commerce Committee's oversight hearing on those auctions, but those distinctions did not manifest themselves in any fireworks.

That is not to say there weren't some colorfully phrased differences of opinion. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) who has a bone or two to pick with how the FCC is setting up the auction, particularly if it puts limits on carrier bidding, said the auctions "are not a science fair project," and suggested that the FCC not "gerrymander" the outcome to favor some carriers over others.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who takes the opposite view, said that spectrum was already "dangerously" concentrated, though he did not elaborate on the danger.

Then there was Harold Feld from Public Knowledge, on the need for bidding conditions. "There is no spectrum fracking to get more out of spectrum shale," he said. "This is the last chance to get low-band in the hands of competitors."

Democrats on the panel generally emphasized the need for spectrum aggregation conditions that insured that smaller carriers had a chance to get some of the low-band spectrum being auctioned -- AT&T and Verizon already hold 80% of the low-band spectrum, they repeatedly emphasized, aided by a witness from T-Mobile.

Republicans generally argued that the auction should not limit or exclude any bidders so that enough money was raised to pay broadcasters, fund FirstNet, the interoperable public safety net, and help reduce the deficit.

The term "beachfront" got a lot of use, primarily by Democrats talking about the importance of getting some of that "beachfront" low-band spectrum into the hands of competitors to AT&T and Verizon. Joan Marsh, VP, federal regulatory, for AT&T, suggested that "beachfront" was an overestimation of its value, since she said in a broadband world, it was about capacity not coverage.

The hearing focused a lot of attention on whether the FCC should put spectrum aggregation limits on the auction, but broadcaster issues got plenty of attention as well.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said he was going to try and make sure that the FCC did not reassign channels before it completed coordination with Mexico and Canada on border issues. He said he wanted to make sure border viewers could still get a TV signal. The issue has been an important one since he represents many of those border viewers. FCC auction official Gary Epstein would not promise that the FCC would do that, but said it would try its hardest to advance the process as far as possible. He also said FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn was traveling to Canada this week for "high level" talks about spectrum border issues.

Rick Kaplan, executive VP of strategic planning for NAB, and Epstein got in a bit of a disagreement over how transparent and accessible the FCC had been.

Kaplan suggested that there was still too much broadcasters did not know about the process. "We would love to be of assistance to the commission," he said, "but understanding where they are in process is important. Otherwise we are shooting in the dark."

Epstein said that the FCC had held workshops, solicited over 460 comments, just put out a public notice the day before with repacking data, and had met 15 times with NAB, and multiple times with many other stakeholders. But he also said that, to the degree the FCC could communicate better, it was willing to do so.

Kaplan suggested that putting the data out the day before the hearing was not exactly the best way to communicate, but also suggested there had been some healthy communications among the witnesses in advance of the hearing and thanked the committee for that opportunity.

Kaplan weighed in on one piece of that new data -- the FCC's latest iteration of its OET-69 repacking software. He said it was still unlawful and unhelpful and was a case of the FCC "moving the goalpost."

Epstein countered that it was not a change in methodology, so still comported with statute, and that the FCC was simply putting in newer and better data.

Epstein said acting FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn had instructed FCC staff to do whatever they could to so that the FCC could adopt an incentive auction report and order by the end of 2013 and hold the auction in 2014.

Kaplan reiterated NAB's concern that the FCC's focus should be on getting the auction done right, rather than right now.