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Chairman and commissioners spar over FCC spectrum auction simulation

L-R: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai L-R: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai

When the FCC Incentive Auction Task force released data on a simulation of the upcoming broadcast incentive spectrum auction Wednesday, GOP commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly promptly took the results and the process to task.

The simulations “are not even based on the methodology proposed by the commission last December,” wrote Pai.

O’Rielly said that the simulation “…vastly deviates from the metric set forth in the Incentive Auction Comment Public Notice. For this reason, it should have been voted on by the full Commission.”

Wheeler pushed back in a press conference following the FCC’s regular monthly meeting on Thursday.

“The question of why don’t you put it to a commission vote is, I hope, not an effort to slow things down, but it would have that impact. It’s never been done before. We are moving on a schedule to get things done. We want to do it in a transparent way and we did,” said Wheeler.

The broadcast incentive auction planned for 2016 uses a model that has never been tried before—broadcasters must first voluntarily give up some of their spectrum before it can be auctioned off to companies for wireless use. To refine the goals, rules and procedures for the auction, the commission must game out what might happen under a range of simulations.

Ironically, both Pai and O’Rielly opposed the December methodology when it was adopted in a 3-2 party line vote.  “I am in no way saddened to see what appears to be the death of a vastly flawed idea,” wrote O’Reilly. “But this was the metric approved by…the commission. I have serious concerns that staff, without explanation, is pursuing an alternate path without any input from the commissioners.”

Both commissioners also expressed doubts about the validity and usefulness of the data, pointing out that the simulations did not take into account any  potential interference from Mexican stations.

Why the task force failed to include Mexican stations in its simulation was particularly troubling to commissioner Pai. “Even though…we’re less than a year from the start of the incentive auction, the FCC still does not have basic information about the location of TV stations along…the border. This is not a great sign,” he wrote.

Wheeler dismissed the objection stressing the iterative nature of pre-auction simulations.  “I think we’re making great progress with both Mexico and Canada and we’ll be able to run simulations based on that data.  This is a fluid process,” he said in the press conference.

Pai also objected to the lack of detail about the assumptions that drove the results of the  simulation—“What broadcasters does the FCC assume are participating? And on what data do the FCC rely in reaching that conclusion?  The Public Notice offers not clue.”

Regardless if others agree with the GOP critiques or, as Wheeler maintains, see the simulation a first step in analyzing the issues related to the selection of the spectrum targets, comments on the simulation results are due to the FCC on June 3.

Expect more fireworks over the summer as the commission works to finalize the details of this “once in a lifetime opportunity” as chairman Wheeler calls the broadcast incentive auction.