What’s behind AT&T’s stab at the FCC on spectrum auctions

AT&T(s T) wants the Federal Communications Commission to steer clear of setting policies for the spectrum auction process and leave it up to Congress, according to a blog post filed by AT&T’s chief lobbyist Jim Cicconi. The position comes as somewhat of a surprise, since one would think the last thing a major telecommunications company would want is to leave its critical airwave future in the hands of Congress. But here’s what’s behind AT&T’s latest public policy power play.

Cicconi, AT&T’s Senior Executive Vice President — External and Legislative Affairs, wrote on the company’s blog Friday:

“We applaud the chairman’s continuing support for incentive spectrum auction legislation, which is vital to consumers and to our Nation’s economy. We are troubled, though, that the chairman and some of his staff are now saying that the FCC, and not the United States Congress, should have full power to impose conditions, and to decide which companies are allowed to participate in spectrum auctions and which should not.

He went on to throw in references to how Congress could ensure the auction would provide “maximum return to the U.S. Treasury” and mentions both innovation and the free market multiple times. So, other than AT&T being angry with the FCC for squashing it’s proposed acquisition of T-Mo, what’s behind this latest attack? It’s all about the airwaves.

There are spectrum auction bills in both the House and the Senate, but it’s the one in the House, which I’ve covered before, that may be the reason AT&T’s getting so uppity. House Republicans are trying to stop the FCC from being able to make the rules for the eventual auction of the digital TV airwaves that President Obama and the FCC want to take from broadcasters and repurpose for mobile broadband.

The House and Senate bills have several problems, as former FCC staffer and author of the National Broadband Plan Blair Levin, explained in an interview with MultiChannel News. From the way the bills lay out how to put the reclaimed spectrum to use as well as language that makes a lawsuit to postpone the use of that spectrum likely, it makes the airwaves resulting from any incentive auctions hard to use freely. As a result, the airwaves that are likely to end up back in the hands of the FCC will be difficult to use for mobile broadband, which means that AT&T isn’t likely to want to bid on them at auction.

Plus the House legislation also tries to ensure that the FCC can’t use any of the airwaves it gets back from the reverse auction for unlicensed use, which would hinder the development of so called “Super Wi-Fi.” The FCC also has a history of putting pesky conditions on auctions, and so far has shown it isn’t afraid to push for a more competitive wireless market by making sure AT&T and Verizon(s VZ)(s VOD) don’t outbid everyone else to lock up the airwaves.

So if AT&T can get Congress to fight the FCC on this particular spectrum auction with this bill, it will have won by making sure new airwaves don’t come burdened by FCC provisions that AT&T doesn’t like. And since Congress seems dead set on making these airwaves no good for mobile broadband, AT&T hasn’t lost much.