Pai Signals FCC to Start New Spectrum Auctions This Year

FCC chair Ajit Pai said the FCC will be holding two spectrum auctions in short order, which means next November and soon thereafter.

That will depend on a congressional fix related to the auction process, but Pai appeared confident that can be resolved.

"I’m excited to announce today that it is my intention for the United States to hold an auction beginning this November of spectrum in the 28-GHz band, followed immediately thereafter by an auction of spectrum in the 24-GHz band," Pai said in a speech Monday (Feb. 26) to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

He said the FCC will seek comment this spring on how the auctions should be conducted.

But the first order of business will be in legislators' hands, he said.

"In order for us to start an auction in November, we need the U.S. Congress to pass legislation by May 13 addressing the handling of upfront payments," Pai said. "Until now, this technical issue hasn’t impeded the FCC’s work because we’ve been busy getting spectrum we’ve already allocated ready to be auctioned. But we’re now ready to move forward with a major spectrum auction, and if we don’t get the problem fixed by May 13, our efforts to realize America’s 5G future will be delayed. I’m pleased that Congress is making bipartisan progress on this issue and am hopeful that we’ll be able to kick off a major spectrum auction in November."

That is a reference to a House FCC reauthorization bill that would resolve the issue, the issue being that the FCC currently has to deposit upfront payments from bidders in an interest-bearing account -- so the government's money can be making money -- but current financial regulations don't allow that. So, the bill would let the FCC deposit those upfront payments directly into the Treasury.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has long called for moving expeditiously on new auctions to free up spectrum for advance communications.

Just last week, Rosenworcel said it was time to quit talking and start acting on new auctions.

House Energy & Commerce Committee chair Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and ranking member Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), are both looking to fix the FCC's problem and get more spectrum in the 5G pipeline.

"The race to 5G is a sprint, not a marathon, and the proposed spectrum auctions will help ensure the United States remains at the forefront of this emerging technology," they said in a joint statement. "Today’s announcement from chairman Pai is yet another reason to enact the bipartisan Ray Baum's Act, which includes the necessary fix to the upfront spectrum deposit payments. We are continuing to work with all parties to get this important legislation to the finish line.”

Wireless operators hungry for that spectrum were cheering Pai's move.

“CTIA applauds chairman Pai for scheduling a high-band spectrum auction in November and will work with the FCC, Congress and other stakeholders to ensure the auction timeline is met,” said the group's president, Meredith Attwell Baker. “The wireless industry needs the certainty of a spectrum pipeline, and chairman Pai’s commitment is a critical next step to meeting the United States’ 5G ambitions and creating millions of new jobs and billions to our economy.”

In its most recent spectrum auction, the broadcast incentive auction, the FCC freed up 84 megahertz of low-band spectrum for commercial and unlicensed wireless use. Now, it is looking to free up higher band spectrum.

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.