News Ticker

FCC postpones two incentive auction items from July agenda [updated]

The Federal Communications Commission’s Thursday meeting on various broadcast incentive auction procedures and rules just got a lot shorter. Chairman Tom Wheeler decided Wednesday afternoon to pull two of three items from the agenda, the auction procedures item and the item on mobile spectrum holdings addressing how much spectrum will be set aside for bidding by smaller wireless carriers.

Remaining on tomorrow’s agenda is the item addressing how auction discounts would be given to small and minority-owned companies, an item precipitated by Dish’s relationship to two small wireless bidders in the AWS-3 auction.

There was plenty of reason to believe Wheeler might pull the first item after House commerce leaders and broadcasters complained that the FCC departed from standard procedures when it released last-minute data on Friday and extended the sunshine period for presentations on the item until 7 p.m. before the meeting.

But no one was expecting Wheeler to pull the second item, which would determine how much spectrum should be set aside for bidding by smaller wireless carriers, a cause celebre for T-Mobile, which led the cry for the FCC to increase the reserve from 30 MHz to 40 MHz.

Both items will be taken up three weeks later at the commission’s August 6 meeting.

In a letter to House energy and commerce chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and communications and technology subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), Wheeler said the two items were related.

“In the spirit of cooperation that has marked our work together on the incentive auctions, I am today postponing commission consideration of this order and the related reconsideration of the mobile spectrum holdings order until the Commission’s next regularly scheduled meeting on August 6,” Wheeler wrote.

Although Wheeler is postponing the item, he doesn’t seem inclined to change his thinking behind keeping the option that a handful of stations might need to be repacked in the so-called duplex gap, the space between the uplink and downlink portions of the mobile wireless spectrum.

“Because we don’t know how many stations will participate in the auction until it starts, we need to make provisions for assigning a few stations to the wireless band in case there is insufficient spectrum in the TV band for all of the stations that wish to remain on the air,” Wheeler said, adding that the simulations and data the commission released last Friday, “make clear the importance of preserving the duplex gap option.”

For broadcasters, the prospect of being placed in the duplex gap is unthinkable because it would displace spectrum for wireless mics and unlicensed uses, as well as cause interference to the adjacent cell frequencies.

The NAB is still perplexed as to why the FCC insists it needs the duplex gap option.

“The FCC’s original incentive auction order fashioned a careful compromise allowing licensed wireless microphones and unlicensed users to operate in the duplex gap. The FCC could easily have voted tomorrow on an order maintaining this balanced approach and not delayed the process. Instead, the Commission has produced no explanation for its about-face and has left stakeholders baffled as to why it is walking away from previous commitments. It’s time for the FCC to engage stakeholders in a transparent, data-driven manner, and come to a successful resolution of this issue,” said Dennis Wharton, the NAB’s executive vice president of communications.Wheeler also reassured the two GOP lawmakers that he hasn’t ignored the potential for interference from Canadian and Mexican stations. “To the contrary, discussions are ongoing with officials in both countries and we are optimistic that we will be able to announce agreements soon that will facilitate a successful auction,” Wheeler said.That the mobile spectrum holdings item was pulled is good news for T-Mobile, Sprint and the Competitive Carriers Association will keep up the pressure to increase the reserve. Although the chairman has signaled he’s unlikely to increase the reserve, there is more time for T-Mobile and others to try and change his mind.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere wasted no time to reach out on Twitter to his customers to put pressure on the FCC for a bigger spectrum reserve.

Even with postponing the two items, Wheeler said the broadcast incentive auction timeline remains in tact.

“I believe that even with this delay we will be able to stay on course for the first quarter of 2016,” Wheeler wrote.