FCC Auction PlansLawmakers soon are expected to approve legislation enabling the FCC to conduct a broadcast spectrum incentive auction—and President Obama could sign the legislation as early as this week. According to news reports, the legislation calls for television broadcasters to voluntarily relinquish $22 billion worth of unused spectrum and share in the proceeds of an auction of that spectrum, which will be used to support mobile broadband service.

According to an announcement from the National Association of Counties, the legislation also allocates the 700 MHz D-block to public safety and gives seven billion dollars of the auction proceeds to the public safety community to support construction of a nationwide public safety mobile broadband network.  The public safety community already has some spectrum, but has argued that it is not enough to support such a network during an emergency.

Plans for the spectrum auction and the public safety network were included in a $150 billion bill approved by congressional negotiators that will extend unemployment benefits as well as a payroll holiday.

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The idea of a voluntary incentive auction for broadcast spectrum was first proposed in the National Broadband Plan released by the FCC in March 2010.

In a statement FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said he was “pleased that Congress has recognized the vital importance of freeing up more spectrum for mobile broadband”—and he hinted that the legislation addresses both licensed and unlicensed spectrum use.

Genachowski also noted that the FCC’s goals include developing “fair effective mechanisms” for “all carriers” to have the opportunity to obtain spectrum. No doubt AT&T and Verizon, the two carriers that dominate the U.S. wireless market, were pleased to hear that, as some people have suggested limiting the ability of those companies to obtain additional spectrum.

But Genachowski also indicated certain concerns about the legislation, noting that it “could limit the FCC’s ability to maximize the amount and benefits of recovered spectrum.” He did not provide details about what those potential “limits” might be.

A more emphatic critic of the legislation was Richard Bennett, senior research fellow of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who said the spectrum legislation fails to deliver an adequate amount of spectrum. Accusing the defense department and television broadcasters of hanging onto spectrum they don’t need, Bennett said, “instead of the 120 MHz that the incentive auction was supposed to deliver in the National Broadband Plan’s estimation, we’ll be lucky to get 60 MHz when the auction concludes.”

It’s important to note that because participation in the auction is voluntary for broadcasters, the task of estimating auction proceeds is more complicated than it was for past auctions.  A National Association of Broadcasters spokesman told Telecompetitor last year that he did not see strong interest on the part of broadcasters in participating in spectrum auctions. Since then, some broadcasters have devoted considerable time and effort into creating their own mobile broadcast offerings using spectrum that is currently unused. Those services, which MetroPCS already has announced plans to make available to its customers, are expected to launch later this year. How willing broadcasters will be to give up spectrum could depend on the success of those services.

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