FCC Seeks More Input on Broadband Auction Rules

With the clock ticking for the sale by January of spectrum for wireless broadband services, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) late Wednesday approved a preliminary broad outline for the final rules and regulations of the auction.

The FCC is also seeking further public input on a number of proposals for the use of the spectrum, including setting aside certain portions of the airwaves for open access and a nationwide public safety wireless network. No decisions were made on how many licenses will be available at the auction or the spectrum size of the licenses.

To encourage a diverse range of bidders for the auction expected to bring $10 to $15 billion to the U.S. Treasury, the FCC adopted a mix of geographic area sizes for licensing the spectrum and established rules related to power limits.

Both Congress and the FCC have said the auction is important to help establish a third broadband pipe into U.S. homes as a competitor to cable and telephone companies, which now control more than 95 percent of the American broadband market.

“One important factor spurring both increased broadband availability and reduced prices is competition among broadband platforms,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in a statement. “The upcoming auction presents the single most important opportunity for us to achieve this goal.”

The spectrum is currently occupied by television broadcasters, who will be vacating the spectrum no later than Feb. 17, 2009, as part of the digital television transition. The airwaves are considered particularly good for wireless broadband since the signals can travel great distances and penetrate walls and other obstacles.

“Depending on how we structure the upcoming auction, we will either enable the emergence of a third broadband pipe — one that would be available to rural as well as urban American — or we will miss our biggest opportunity,” Martin said.

Among the biggest questions left unanswered by the FCC is the nationwide wireless network for first responders. Martin said the FCC is considering a public-private proposal to build a national interoperable system suggested by Frontline Wireless.

The Greensboro, N.C.-based Frontline wants the FCC to set aside a single spectrum license with the winning bidder obligated to build a nationwide, interoperable, wireless broadband network for the public service community. In return, the winning bidder would receive 10 MHz of spectrum to offer wholesale spectrum with roaming and open access.

Frontline’s idea is that both commercial users and public safety officials will use the network, with the commercial users generating enough revenue to build and operate the network. Public safety users would pre-empt commercial users during an emergency.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said he welcomed the Frontline proposal but has doubts about the plan.

“I am not at all sure that a dual-use network along the lines proposed here will actually deliver public safety users the network they so desperately need and deserve,” he said in a statement. “Put simply, I will need strong assurances –- much stronger than any we have provided thus far –- that the plan will actually work.”

Martin said he is aiming for a June deadline to put the final auction rules and regulations in space.

“Although we are seeking further comment on issues, I remain highly aware of the need to move swiftly to provide sufficient time for all parties to prepare for the auction,” Martin said. “It is paramount that this auction not be delayed.”

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