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Wireless Competition Hangs Over Spectrum Auction

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
A Justice Department recommendation that the FCC set aside some low-frequency airwaves for smaller wireless carriers drew a rebuke from Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee, including Chairman Upton.

Even for an agency like the Federal Communications Commission, which specializes in the complicated and arcane world of telecom policy, next year’s planned spectrum auction is a doozy.

The FCC faces a tall order in planning and implementing the “reverse” auction that many have called the most complex undertaking the commission has ever attempted. The agency must develop a plan to encourage television broadcasters to relinquish their airwaves for sale so they can then be repackaged and sold to wireless providers to meet the soaring consumer demand for mobile broadband. There are many moving parts, and there is no way to know how many TV stations will choose to participate, or how much spectrum will be freed up for auction.

But for members of Congress, the debate surrounding the auction boils down to one simple question: Is there enough competition in the national wireless market?

For those who say yes — including many Republicans — the auction is an opportunity to optimize the use of spectrum, a valuable resource, while raising billions of dollars for the federal government to build the national interoperable public safety network dubbed FirstNet and to reduce the budget deficit.

For those more concerned about the state of the wireless market, which includes the Obama administration and many Democratic lawmakers, the auction is a chance to boost smaller wireless carriers so they can better compete against the two largest national providers, Verizon and AT&T. Some Democrats have urged the FCC to take steps, including limiting bidding eligibility, to ensure that those two giants don’t buy up all of the most-desirable spectrum at the auction.

“What this presents is an enormous opportunity to promote a competitive wireless landscape where carriers of all sizes, not just some, have an opportunity to bid competitively for licensed spectrum,” Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of California, the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, told CQ Roll Call recently.

Any electronic device that sends or receives signals to transmit sound, video or data uses electromagnetic spectrum, or airwaves. Not all spectrum is created equal; particular bands have properties that inform what they are used for. The lower-frequency bands can cover greater distances and travel through walls, trees and other barriers, making them well-suited to long-range uses like TV broadcasting. The bands below 1 gigahertz are considered the most valuable, or “beachfront,” spectrum and are desirable for a number of purposes.

Eshoo said Verizon and AT&T control 86 percent of the “beachfront” spectrum in the nation’s 10 largest markets, and she is adamant that smaller carriers need access to low-frequency spectrum to compete.

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