Federal regulators on Thursday set the date and rules for a unique, complex effort to buy some broadcast airwaves and auction them to wireless companies to provide more mobile services.
The broadcast incentive auction will begin March 29, about four years after Congress authorized the innovative approach in hopes of making more spectrum available for wireless Internet while generating billions of dollars in revenue for the government.
The premise is simple: Lure some broadcasters to give up their valuable spectrum by offering to share some of the money the government will receive by auctioning the rights to use the airwaves to wireless providers.
But the auction is highly complicated and some of the specific procedures are controversial, with implications for the amount of airwaves available to the largest wireless companies and potential problems for interference with the over-the-air signals of broadcasters and the ability to download data on smartphones.
Reflecting that, the auction rules were approved on a partisan 3-2 vote by the Democratic-controlled Federal Communications Commission.
“The complexities of reclaiming old airwaves and repurposing them for new wireless use are big — and the small details matter,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the three Democratic commissioners who approved the rules. “We cannot forget we are making history.”
A key provision to promote competition will limit the ability of the dominant wireless providers — AT&T and Verizon Communications — to buy the rights to use the new airwaves in some markets.
Overland Park-based Sprint said Thursday: “It’s critical at this juncture in the wireless industry that the FCC utilize the full range of its policy levers to foster robust, sustainable mobile broadband competition going forward. To that end, we look forward to reviewing the order and to continuing to work with the commission to advance a competition agenda that benefits consumers, spurs innovation and drives economic growth.”
The FCC’s Republicans, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, opposed the auction rules. The two commissioners said that the rules would limit the revenues raised by the auction and that their proposals to improve the process were rejected by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and the majority Democrats.
The National Association of Broadcasters slammed the new rules as “a major setback for … a successful incentive auction.”