Congress May Delay Spectrum Auction

Momentum is gaining in Congress to indefinitely delay the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) June 19 spectrum auction of airwaves currently used by television broadcasters. The FCC has already delayed the auction five times and is under a legal mandate to sell airwaves used by channels 60-69 by Sept. 30.

Earlier this month, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), a trade association whose members would be the primary bidders for the spectrum, asked the FCC to delay the auction but the agency’s wireless bureau turned down the request. Adding to pressure to delay the sale also came from U.S. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans in a letter to the FCC asking the agency to postpone the June sale until Congress decides if it wants to extend or eliminate the auction deadline.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell has said any delay in the auction date should come from Congress since it wrote the original law.

Reports surfaced late Thursday that House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin and ranking Democrat Rep. John Dingell plan to do just that. The two intend to introduce legislation that would eliminate the September deadline for the auction and further order the FCC to not conduct the June 19 auction.

It would be almost impossible for the bill to clear hearings and floor votes in both the House and the Senate before June 19, but a widespread show of support in both chambers might give Powell and the FCC the confidence to cancel the auction so close to the September deadline.

At issue is the spectrum currently held by television broadcasters who are supposed to return it as they migrate to digital. Under the current law, the broadcasters are not required to give up the analog airwaves, which are the focus of the June 19 auction, until 2006 or when the penetration for digital television reaches 85 percent, whichever comes later.

The wireless community wants the delay the auction in order to gain a better feel for when the spectrum might actually be available in order to access market conditions and to develop business plans.

Congress has yet to take any action on the Bush administration proposal to give the FCC until September 2004 to sell airwaves used by television broadcasters on channels 60-69 and until September 2006 for those broadcasters on channels 52-59.

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