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A Marriage ofSpectrum Convenience

After months of heated rhetoric as they battled over their relative communications futures, broadcasters and some wireless companies have now found common ground in their quest for levels of spectrum auction fairness. Somewhat ironically—given their continued desire to keep their distance, at least in terms of spectrum allocations— that agreement is on the FCC’s reverse incentive auctions.

In a joint letter to the FCC, the National Association of Broadcasters and wireless carriers AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile stated their agreement on common principles on a broadband band plan. While the move came as a bit of a shock, whispers of the bond had been growing louder of late.

For starters, the NAB had tapped Rick Kaplan, the former chief of the FCC’s Wireless Bureau to be its point person on the auctions. Kaplan signaled in a B&C interview last month that his job, at the direction of NAB President Gordon Smith, was to work constructively with the wireless industry.

Broadcasters fought the incentive auctions initially, but after the handwriting was on the tablet, the NAB’s goal became the most broadcaster-friendly auction possible, which left open the possibility of cooperation wherever its interests dovetailed with the wireless companies that would be sharing the former broadcast band.

The first sign that the ice was breaking came back in November, when the NAB and CTIA: The Wireless Association filed a joint letter to the FCC asking for an extension of the comment deadline on the auctions, pointing to industry discussions.

Kaplan told B&C that the two had actually found lots of areas of agreement, which they wound up outlining in the joint letter.

Chief among them was that the FCC’s lead band plan proposal was off base because it sandwiched broadcasters in between wireless carriers’ uplink and downlink spectrum—the so-called “duplex gap”—and because it allowed for the possibility that in, say, New York, broadcasters could occupy channel 48, but wireless carriers could be using the same channel in Philadelphia for their hand sets and base stations. That, declared both parties, could shut wireless carriers out of some markets, or lead to interference.

During the run-up to passage of the incentive auction legislation, the NAB charged that the spectrum “crisis” had been manufactured by the wireless industry, while CTIA shot back that broadcasters were getting desperate.

But even as the comments flew, both sides signaled that shared incentive auction self-interest could trump the rhetoric. In late 2011, they cosigned a letter opposing spectrum fees as part of any auction plan.

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