FCC Gets Unlicensed White Space Autonomy
In a last-minute compromise reached by House and Senate leaders on Thursday, both sides agree to pay for the payroll tax cut by auctioning off $ 22 billion worth wireless spectrum — expected to total some 120 MHz, from UHF channel 31 to 51.
The bill cleared the Senate in a 60-36 vote less than an hour after the House approved it by a 293-132 margin. A majority of House Republicans and Democrats voted in favor of the bill, though 91 Republicans and 41 Democrats in the chamber voted no. Negotiators agreed to auction off some $ 22 billion worth of the spectrum, then siphon $ 7 billion of that into a fund for building and maintaining the nationwide “D-Block” LTE network for emergency first responders.
President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law shortly after returning from a West Coast fundraising swing.
The bill doesn’t allow the FCC to prohibit major wireless providers from taking part in the auction, but does allow the FCC to limit the amount of spectrum a company can hold in a particular market. The FCC also retained the ability to assign some of the new television band for unlicensed use.
Numerous wireless companies and other advocates of releasing the spectrum have come out in favor of the bill.
- The Wireless Association (CTIA), the cellular industry lobbying group, cheered the move. “This additional spectrum will help CTIA’s members meet Americans’ voracious appetite for mobile Internet anywhere and anytime,” said CTIA CEO Steve Largent in a prepared statement. “While current usage is significant with more than 340 billion MB of wireless data used in the first half of 2011, mobile data usage is expected to grow by a factor of 16 over the next five years.”
- The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) applauded the agreement by Congressional negotiators today, affirming the FCC’s authority to designate wireless frequencies for unlicensed use.
- “Sprint supports the bipartisan compromise announced this morning by the House and Senate leadership and we hope that Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate will support it with a vote for final passage,” said Vonya B. McCann, Sprint’s senior vice president for Government Affairs, in a statement provided to TPM.
- Even AT&T, which had eyed the compromise with suspicion, applauded the decision. AT&T had been concerned that Congress would give the FCC too much power to dictate the rules of the spectrum auctions.
“In our industry, there has been much focus in recent weeks on whether the FCC should or should not be able to exclude qualified wireless carriers from bidding in these spectrum auctions. The final legislation speaks clearly on this point: the FCC may not do so as part of any auction proceeding. Instead, it could only make such a decision through a separate public rulemaking with general industry applicability, and not through the backdoor of special auction rules. This provides procedural safeguards, and also an opportunity for a court challenge.
- MetroPCS recognizes that the legislation in the conference report was a compromise. While we would like for more unused Federal government spectrum to be reallocated and auctioned in the near term, the enactment of the spectrum auction provisions in the conference report will start to relieve the “spectrum crunch,” help the economy grow and create jobs.
Key public-safety components of the deal, reports Urgent.com, include reallocation of the D Block — the 10 MHz swath of spectrum adjacent to the airwaves licensed to the PSST—to public safety, so first responders will have 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum for LTE, according to Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, which currently holds the license for public-safety broadband spectrum in the 700 MHz band. Much of that deployment will be paid for with the $ 7 billion in federal funding that is supposed to be part of the bill.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) added today that extending the holiday without an offsetting spending cut would starve Social Security, as the payroll tax funds the Social Security Trust Fund.
“I’m not saying anything disparaging about the leadership on both sides of the aisle and the leadership in both bodies, but we are taking money away from the Social Security Trust Fund and we are substituting an IOU that may or may not ever be repaid,” Barton said.
More than 100 organizations sent letters to Congressional leaders in both houses and both sides of the aisle, asking them not to eliminate the unlicensed airwaves. White space spectrum, the vacant airwaves between television channels, was opened by the FCC for unlicensed use in September 2010. The spectrum may pave the way for unlicensed wireless broadband, similar to WiFi, with slower speeds but much improved range, which may be particularly beneficial for rural users.
Broadcasters are satisfied that stations opting out of selling airwaves at incentive auctions would be protected and would get financial help if they are forced to move to another section of the TV band.
Roughly $ 1.75 billion will be available for the F.C.C. to compensate television stations that volunteer to give up their spot on the spectrum. The F.C.C., with some restrictions, can also move some stations around on the broadcast spectrum, allowing it to put together packages of contiguous bands of spectrum. Those would be more valuable than scattered pieces and thus should raise more money at auction.
Julius Genachowski, chairman of the FCC, said he was “pleased that Congress has recognized the vital importance of freeing up more spectrum for mobile broadband,” although the agency has less wiggle room in determining policy for potential spectrum bidders.
Blair Levin, architect of the FCC National Broadband Plan that proposed the auctions to provide up to 120 MHz of new spectrum, said the auction of tv spectrum could happen as swiftly as four or five years.
Levin is concerned that bill provides too much direction, and too little flexibility for the FCC to use its auction expertise. He would have preferred simply giving the FCC the authority to compensate broadcasters, which it currently lacks, and let the commission fill in the rest, particularly given the difficulty in predicting changes in technology that could affect a spectrum auction.
About $ 15 billion of the $ 30 billion extension in unemployment benefits will be paid for with the proceeds of the incentive auctions, which are expected to raise more than $ 25 billion. An additional $ 7 billion of auction proceeds will be used to build a public safety network. If that block of spectrum had been sold, it might have raised $ 2.75 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office (pdf), but that spectrum would have also been made available to all citizens in a shared public/private partnership.
The FCC auctioned 52 MHz in the 700 MHz band for $ 19 billion in March 2008. AT&T paid more for their piecemeal spectrum blocks then Verizon did for their nationwide “C” Block. If 52 MHz goes for $ 19 billion, you’d think 120 MHz of 600 MHz spectrum would generate more than $ 22-$ 25 billion. But the FCC will be “lucky” to get 60MHz of spectrum from the incentive auctions, said Richard Bennett, a researcher and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-focused think tank.
It’s probably too early to pass judgement on this legislation, but it was refreshing to see compromise and positive movement rather than bickering and vitriol.
Related Dailywireless articles include; FCC Gets Autonomy in Payroll Tax Bill, FCC Plans Improved Rural Wireless Broadband, Municipal Networks: Good for Cities?, Spectrum Legislation: Democracy Now!, White Space War, SF Approves Dedicated LTE Network for First Responders, FCC Plans Improved Rural Wireless Broadband, FCC Autonomy Under Fire, AT&T Competitors: No 700MHz Roaming, SF Approves Dedicated LTE Network for First Responders, Universal Service Reform Passed , FCC Reforms $ 4.3B USF Fund, FCC Reforms Universal Service, Will USF Funds Subsidize AT&T Buildout? White Space Legislation Goes Dark, White House: D-Block to Police/Fire, State of the Spectrum
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