Congress held its sixth hearing in two weeks with the FCC. But this time, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler got a break, and Congress gave net neutrality a rest.
Instead Congress focused on the next major FCC project: the world’s most complex auction of wireless spectrum.
FCC officials sought to reassure a House subcommittee that the commission was taking all the right steps so the incentive auction, just a year away, would be as successful as the recently-completed AWS-3 auction.
The AWS-3 auction of wireless spectrum blew the doors off all expectations, bringing in net proceeds of more than $41 billion. It not only provided $7 billion for the construction of the public safety broadband network known as FirstNet, it also generated $20 billion for deficit reduction.
Lawmakers have even higher expectations for the auction of broadcast spectrum, considered “beachfront property” for wireless services. But first, enough broadcasters must voluntarily relinquish some or all of their spectrum.
“We won’t have an auction unless we have broadcaster participation,” Gary Epstein, the FCC’s chair of the incentive auction task force told the House subcommittee on communications and technology.
“We’re optimistic,” Epstein said. “We’re noticing it, not by any administrative thing the commission is doing, but by broadcaster interest,” said Epstein, one of four FCC officials called before the House communications and technology subcommittee to provide details of the status of the FCC’s auction plans.
The commission is currently in the middle of holding public and private meetings with broadcasters in 50 markets to explain how the auction will work and what broadcasters can expect to be paid for their spectrum.
“The business information and estimated pricing information, plus the AWS auction, has piqued a lot of interest,” said Epstein.
When the AWS auction began to rack up tens of billions of dollars in bids, broadcasters took notice. Now some of the nation’s largest station owners, including 21st Century Fox, CBS, Tribune, ION Media, Univision, have publicly expressed their interest.
More recently Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen, said NBCU was considering selling some spectrum, Epstein noted.
Lawmakers also sought reassurances from the FCC that the commission would address the designated entity program that allowed two companies funded by Dish to pick up a large cache of spectrum at a discount in the AWS auction.
During his marathon series of hearings these past two weeks, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said the commission was working on a proposal to fix the designated entity program. Roger Sherman, the FCC’s wireless bureau chief, echoed that it was a “priority for the commission.”
“There are proposals [to address the program] on the table. These are complicated issues and we have to make sure they don’t allow for gaming of the system,” Sherman said added.
FCC officials also addressed the commission’s progress towards solving cross-border coordination issues with Canada and Mexico. Epstein said the commission was making progress and would have a solution within two months.
“We’ve been working on this a couple of years. Hopefully, we’re getting reasonably close,” Epstein said.