Yesterday, the House Communications Subcommittee held a hearing on Oversight of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Now with its full complement of five Commissioners, the FCC was questioned closely by several Subcommittee Members, and spectrum issues dominated the morning.
All five Commissioners included their views on the upcoming Incentive Auctions in their prepared remarks, available here.The Incentive Auctions will involve getting back television spectrum, and paying the television licensees, in order to auction off that spectrum for communications services. The Commission is wrestling with the competing concerns of maximizing the number of spectrum bidders, while also preventing further concentration in the wireless service market, while also finding a way to comport with Congress’s mandate in the Spectrum Act (part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, Pub. L. No. 112-96, that “remainder spectrum,” such as excess guard band spectrum, be made available for unlicensed – unauctioned – use. The issue predictably gave rise to many questions.
Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) stated that, as a former auctioneer himself, he believes the goal of the spectrum forward auction is to maximize revenue. FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler responded that the goal is to ensure that the spectrum pairings are as useful – and thus as valuable – as possible, and agreed that a great deal of revenue must be raised in order to pay for programs such as First Net.
The Incentive Auctions presently are scheduled for 2015.
Other congressmen, including Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), had questions about how smaller, and especially rural, television stations will be protected after the spectrum is put out for auction. Chairman Wheeler replied by stating that federal law requires the FCC to focus always on consumer welfare, which in this context means ensuring that broadcast content remains available to them.
In addition to the Incentive Auctions, ongoing plans to release additional spectrum in the 1775 MHz, 2155 MHz, and 3.5 GHz bands received several questions. Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY) asked how the spectrum will be offered, and Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) asked whether the FCC will permit unlicensed use. Mr. Wheeler’s responses continued to focus on the need to maximize the utility of the spectrum while focusing on consumers.
The hearing demonstrated that Congress remains well aware of the need to bring additional wireless spectrum to market. It also demonstrated that the competing interests involved in spectrum policy will require a good deal of time and deft policymaking at the FCC.