Pai: FCC Itself May Be Obstacle to Successful Auction

FCC commissioner Ajit Pai said Thursday the biggest obstacle to the commission meeting its revenue targets for the spectrum auctions is the commission itself and plans to limit access to low-band spectrum.

At a Mobile Future forum in Washington Thursday, Pai said that to meet the $27.95 billion target—that includes $20 billion for deficit reduction after paying broadcasters, paying for FirstNet, the interoperable broadband public safety network—the broadcast incentive auction must have robust participation.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has planned a May 15 vote on an item that is expected to in some way limit how much low-band spectrum a single company can have in a market. Pai definitely is not on the same page.

"The FCC should not limit carriers’ ability to participate. We should not pick winners and losers," he told the audience. "The inevitable effect of a policy that limits participation will be less spectrum for mobile broadband, less funding for national priorities, a higher budget deficit, and an increased chance of a failed auction."

AT&T has been very vocal about the threat to its participation of rules that would limit access to low-band, though it has been trying to work with the FCC on ways to insure its participation and the success of the auction. But it's not the only one. U.S. Cellular told the FCC this week that a low-band limit would put it, too, at a disadvantage.

"Certain companies selected by the government will be shielded from competing against other companies," he said, "Instead of good, old-fashioned competition [or 'competition, competition, competition' he quipped earlier in the speech, echoing a Wheeler catchphrase]," the chosen few would have spectrum set aside especially for them.

Pai, who is not shy about employing analogies, even invoked Orwell. "It’s not an auction on equal terms if some competitors can bid on all the spectrum but other competitors can bid on only some—unless of course we’re back on Animal Farm, where all are equal but some are more equal than others."

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.