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FCC Chairman tells carriers to show a bit more enthusiasm for the upcoming spectrum auction

Could you get a little excited, at least? That was the message FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler delivered to the carriers at the U.S. mobile industry’s biggest trade show on Tuesday. What he wants carriers to get worked up about is the 2015 spectrum incentive auction, which is in danger of going down in flames. And Wheeler warned them if the auction does wind up being a failure, new spectrum could be much harder to come by in the future.

Here’s Wheeler’s conundrum: In 2015 the FCC will attempt to pull off the most complicated spectrum auction in its history, converting airwaves now used for broadcast TV into frequencies for new 4G services. The problem is for the auction to work the broadcasters need to agree to sell off their spectrum, and so far many of them have been quite reluctant.

In fact, the TV industry’s lobbying arm, the National Association of Broadcasters, has gone to the courts trying to get the auction stopped. The NAB is challenging it on grounds that broadcasters who choose to remain on air won’t have their signals protected when the band is rearranged for 4G services. But Wheeler seems to think what the broadcasters really want is more assurances that they will be compensated if they risk putting their airwaves on the auction block.

FCC Commissioners (L to R): Commissioner Ajit Pai, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly (Source: FCC)
FCC Commissioners (L to R): Commissioner Ajit Pai, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly (Source: FCC)

To convince the broadcasters they will get paid, Wheeler says he needs the help of the carriers. Apart from hosting pep rallies, Wheeler would really like carriers to start naming the dollar amounts they would be willing to commit to the auction. AT&T and Dish have been enthusiastic about the auction, Wheeler pointed out, and before their merger attempt failed Sprint and T-Mobile were talking about committing large amounts of capital to a bidding joint venture.

“The rest of the industry, however, has been strangely silent,” Wheeler said during his keynote at CTIA Wireless.

Wheeler went on to say that carriers’ butts are on the line right alongside his. If this auction is a success then it will set the stage for future auction successes, Wheeler claimed. If it’s a bomb, then the government isn’t likely to take the industry demand for more airwaves seriously in the future, he said.

“If mobile operators don’t put their money where their mouths have been the future of spectrum policy will begin to look very different,” he said.

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