Congress Spikes FCC Spectrum Auction

Congress has cancelled today’s government auction of spectrum by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). With deft legislative maneuvers, a bill indefinitely delaying the sale of 758 wireless licenses moved through both the House of Representatives and the Senate in one day and reached the White House for President George W. Bush’s signature.

Originally scheduled for May of 2000, the auction has been postponed five times before the FCC selected the June 19 date. Covering wireless spectrum where television channels 50-59 are located, the space is scheduled to be abandoned as broadcasters make the transition to digital television. The broadcasters have until 2006 or when the penetration for digital television reaches 85 percent, whichever comes later, to abandon the space.

In January of last year, the FCC ruled that the winners of the wireless auction would have to negotiate with broadcasters instead of simply forcing the stations to give up the space, which was originally given to the broadcasters by the government for free.

The FCC also faces 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 decided if it wanted to extend or eliminate the auction deadline.

The Bush Administration has proposed giving the FCC until Sept. 2004 to sell channels 60-69 and Sept. 2006 for channels 52-59.

Throughout the spring, lawmakers threatened to cancel or postpone the auction for the airwaves in the lower portion of the 700 megahertz band. Uncertainty over exactly when the broadcasters would leave the space prompted several major carriers to skip participating in the auction. The wireless industry wanted more time to better gauge when the spectrum would become available. An industry trade group, the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, petitioned the FCC to delay the auction.

But the FCC said its hands were tied, since Congress imposed the deadline and would have to remove it.

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