House Gets Earful on Spectrum Auctions

WASHINGTON — The political divide over the Federal Communications Commission's incentive-auction process was in evidence Tuesday at a House Commerce Committee oversight hearing, 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., pictured) — 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 agency shouldn’t "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.

And Harold Feld, senior vice president of public-interest group Public Knowledge, advocated for bidding conditions. “There is no spectrum fracking to get more out of spectrum shale," he said. "This is last chance to get low-band in hands of competitors."

Democrats on the panel generally emphasized the need for spectrum aggregation conditions that ensured smaller carriers had a chance at some of the low-band spectrum being auctioned — AT&T and Verizon Wireless 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 enough money is raised to pay broadcasters for the spectrum they’re vacating; fund FirstNet, the interoperable public safety network; 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 prized low-band spectrum into the hands of competitors to AT&T and Verizon.  AT&T vice president of federal regulatory Joan Marsh suggested the “beachfront” term was an overestimation of the spectrum’s value, though, as capacity is more important than coverage in a broadband world. 

The hearing placed much focus on whether the FCC should put spectrum aggregation limits on the auction, but broadcaster issues received plenty of attention as well.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said he would try to make sure that the FCC did not reassign channels before it completed coordination with Mexico and Canada to ensure viewers in border areas could still receive a TV signal — an issue that hits close to home with his border-state constituents. Gary Epstein, co-lead of the FCC’s Auction Task Force, would not promise the agency would do that, but said it would try its hardest to advance the process as far as possible.

Acting FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn was traveling to Canada this week for "high-level" talks about spectrum border issues, he added.

Rick Kaplan, executive vice president of strategic planning at the National Association of Broadcasters, and Epstein got in a bit of a disagreement over how transparent and accessible the FCC had been.

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

Noting that the FCC had held workshops, solicited for more than 460 comments, put out a notice just a day before the hearing with signal-repacking data and met 15 times with the NAB and multiple times with other stakeholders, Kaplan said that to the degree that the FCC could communicate better, it was willing to do so.

Releasing the data the day before the hearing was not exactly the best way to communicate, Kaplan argued, but he 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 agency "moving the goalpost."

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

Clyburn has instructed the FCC staff to do whatever is necessary so an incentive auction report and order could be issued by year-end and an auction held in 2014, Epstein noted.

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

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.