Julius Knapp, Chief of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology, spoke to participants of the 6th Annual Forum Europe Spectrum Conference on June 15 in Brussels, commenting in particular on the FCC’s recent efforts to promote so-called “incentive auctions.”

Mr. Knapp said that the purpose of the incentive auctions is to encourage broadcasters holding VHF and UHF spectrum to voluntarily make that spectrum available, so that the FCC could then auction the spectrum for mobile broadband use. The proceeds of the auction would be shared with the broadcaster, thereby giving the broadcaster a significant financial incentive to participate in the system. The broadcaster would obviously have to find alternative means to broadcast its programming, but this could be arranged by sharing frequencies with another broadcaster in a multiplex. 

When asked by a member of the audience whether broadcasters would really have sufficient incentive to participate in a program, Mr. Knapp responded that no one will know for sure until the system is tried. Broadcasters legitimately want to know all the details of the program before expressing interest. Once it is known how many broadcasters would participate in the program, the FCC would attempt to create blocks of contiguous spectrum that could be auctioned and that would be appropriate for LTE technology for example.

Mr. Knapp pointed out that the FCC currently does not have authority to conduct incentive auctions of this kind, and that there is a proposal before Congress (PDF 223 kb) that would give the FCC explicit authority to move forward with the plan. (The bill is labeled S. 911, the “Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act.”)

Mr. Knapp also commented on the FCC’s September 23, 2010, decision on white spaces, pointing out that the systems using white spaces could be a form of a “super WiFi.” The white space networks would rely on central databases that would constantly relay to the radio equipment information about what spectrum can safely be used in the area without causing interference. Two channels would be reserved for wireless microphones, and if there were large events requiring more capacity, the database would reflect this and shut down white space use in the relevant area during the time of the event. The FCC rules require that it approve the radio equipment used for white space transmissions, which helps guarantee that the use of the white space would not cause harmful interference.

A number of companies have expressed interest in becoming white space database managers, including a recent request by Microsoft in the United States. In the last few days, Microsoft also has announced that together with a large number of British companies it will conduct a Cambridge TV White Spaces trial, showing that this issue is attracting attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

For more information on incentive auctions, see Ari Fitzgerald’s previous post  on "White House Makes Case for Voluntary Incentive Auctions" and the February 2011 White Paper on incentive auctions by the wireless association CTIA and the Consumer Electronics Association.