Public Knowledge to Congress: Oversee Auctions, Don't Micromanage Them

WASHINGTON — Public Knowledge is telling Congress that all involved parties should lighten up when it comes to spectrum incentive auctions so Federal Communications Commission staffers can do their jobs, or risk rushing headlong and "heedlessly" into an "ill-designed" process.

The FCC has been getting plenty of input from Capitol Hill and stakeholders on its efforts to develop a band plan for housing broadcasters and wireless companies after the incentive auctions, including from big wireless companies concerned that they could be kneecapped by spectrum limits, broadcasters worried that the band plan could reduce their viability downstream and many others seeking more details about the auction’s set-up before they decide to participate.

But according to a copy of his testimony for a July 23 hearing on spectrum auctions in the House Communications Subcommittee, Harold Feld, the nonprofit advocacy group’s senior vice president, will suggest that some stakeholders need to take a chill pill and stop "browbeating" FCC staffers.

"Constantly hectoring staff that they are moving too fast or two slow, issuing too many public notices, or not enough; being too generous to broadcasters, or not generous enough; scheming to undermine licensed spectrum with inflated guard bands; or being in the pocket of this or that faction of the industry is worse than not helpful," Feld’s testimony said. "It creates an atmosphere of suspicion and pushes staff to retreat into the bowels of the Portals at a time when we need the maximum amount of transparency and trust between staff and stakeholders."

Feld said the FCC should avoid "forcing" false choices between licensed and unlicensed spectrum or boosting competition vs. paying for FirstNet, the interoperable nationwide broadband first responder network that will be paid for with auction proceeds.

 Feld's advice to Congress is to oversee the process without micromanaging it.

"It is entirely appropriate to require the FCC to explain its choices," he said. "It is counter-productive to tell the FCC before it even makes choices that it has chosen wrong."

Feld cautioned the government to "carefully examining" the consensus band plan outline endorsed jointly by the National Association of Broadcasters, Verizon Communications and AT&T given that "the interest of the federal government is somewhat at odds with the interest of both wireless carriers (who would prefer to acquire licenses as cheaply as possible) and broadcasters (who would prefer to sell for the highest value possible)."

Public Knowledge is not without its own dogs in the fight, however. It wants the FCC to make plenty of spectrum available for unlicensed, and rules to keep the largest wireless companies from dominating the bidding, or to follow what Feld calls the "No Piggies Rule." Put another way, he wants to make sure that "this [or that] little piggie" gets to market with an opportunity to buy.

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.