The payroll extension tax before Congress has two surprisingly technical segments related to mobile broadband that raise big mobile broadband questions — namely, will the FCC be allowed to set rules to promote mobile broadband competition in its next spectrum auction and can the agency can set aside some airwaves for unlicensed use? In strict consumer terms, will this limit the competition further in mobile broadband and will it kill the next Wi-Fi or Bluetooth before it’s even born.
Handcuffing the FCC
In a letter released Thursday Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) asked the two Congressmen who are overseeing the passage of the bill through the House and Senate to eliminate the provisions that strip the FCC of its ability to set rules about who and how wireless companies could bid in the hoped-for auction of TV spectrum. In recent weeks AT&T has gone into overdrive defending its efforts to stop the FCC from setting any rules that might limit AT&T’s attempts to bid for the hoped-for spectrum.
AT&T’s machinations are puzzling, since it has managed to pick up a considerable amount of spectrum under the rules that the FCC has set in previous years for auctions, and because it actually seems like it wouldn’t want a completely neutered FCC overseeing the wireless industry, especially given the amount of partisan bickering that can hold up its favored legislation in Congress. Sen. Kohl has other concerns that most consumers might share. In his letter he writes, “This essentially eliminates the FCC’s ability to conduct auctions in a way that maintains a competitive marketplace.”
After the FCC and the Department of Justice put the kibosh on AT&T’s attempts to buy T-Mobile on fears that it might harm mobile competition (and because the FCC claimed AT&T lied about job creation), one would think AT&T would lie low for a while instead of drawing the attention and possible ire of senators, several consumer watchdog organizations and most of the nation’s other carriers. Verizon has been silent on this issue so far, but I reached out to see if they wanted to address the rumors I hear that they, too, are lobbying to put legislation in that limits the FCC’s ability to limit who bids, but I haven’t heard back.
Here’s what should really frustrate Silicon Valley and broadband nerds.
Making it hard for existing mobile operators or upstarts to get the spectrum they need to compete against AT&T and Verizon is bad, but this bill also contains language that could kill or maim white spaces broadband before it’s even born. The legislation makes it impossible for the FCC to Allocate unlisenced spectrum in the TV white spaces — an issue I’ve written a lot about. Unlicensed spectrum is an important part of our daily lives, because those are the airwaves that Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, baby monitors and cordless phones operate in.
Heck, even wireless toys rely on that shared spectrum. And under a plan to create white spaces broadband, some of the airwaves between the digital TV bands were going to be used for fixed wireless broadband. That technology would provide a free over the air link to existing Internet pipes in homes, in the ground or in businesses. Unfortunately, under the proposed payroll legislation it’s looking like the FCC can’t even allocate any of those airwaves to unlisenced use at all — something 40 members of Congress wrote the heads of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee to protest on Thursday.
It’s frustrating when important technical issues become balls swatted around by Congress. Given the importance of passing this legislation, which is supposed to cut the amount of payroll taxes employees will pay, the inclusion of this language as a hope to cram it through without a public debate seems like a low blow at the FCC, consumers and broadband in general.