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Lawmakers hear mixed message on limiting spectrum bidding

Some advocates urge the FCC to limit AT&T and Verizon in the upcoming incentive auction

By Grant Gross
December 10, 2013 05:17 PM ET

IDG News Service - The U.S. Federal Communications Commission should limit the amount of spectrum that giant mobile carriers AT&T and Verizon Communications are able to buy in an auction scheduled for mid-2015, some U.S. senators said Tuesday.

But lawmakers could reach no consensus on proposals to limit the bids of the two largest mobile carriers in the U.S. in the upcoming auction of spectrum now controlled by television stations. Some Republican senators, along with an AT&T representative and other witnesses, including an AT&T official, called for unrestricted bidding in the mid-2015 auction of 600MHz spectrum.

"The FCC should let all interested participants freely compete against one other in the open market," Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing. "It should avoid putting its thumb on the scales. The value of using spectrum auctions is that the free market is more effective at allocating spectrum than relying on the subjective opinions and predictions of government officials."

Thune and Joan Marsh, AT&T's vice president of federal regulatory affairs, urged the FCC to reject calls by carriers Sprint and T-Mobile USA, along with the U.S. Department of Justice and some other advocates, to cap the amount of spectrum the two largest carriers can buy. In the so-called incentive auction, TV stations would volunteer to give up prime spectrum for mobile broadband services in exchange for a cut of the auction proceeds.

T-Mobile and Sprint, through recent mergers, have become stronger competitors and don't need the FCC's help, Marsh told senators.

"An open auction is the fairest method to assign licenses because it ensures that all applicants have the same opportunity to obtain spectrum," Marsh said. "An open auction would allow market competition, rather than regulation, to allocate spectrum, ensuring that it is put to its best and highest use."

Still, if the FCC decides to cap spectrum purchases, it should do so for all carriers and not just the two largest, Marsh said.

Some other witnesses agreed with that approach. The FCC should adopt a "no-piggie rule" that limits any one carrier from buying too much of the available spectrum, said Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge and a frequent AT&T critic.

But without some caps on the largest carriers, small regional mobile carriers won't be able to compete in the auction, said Steven Berry, president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association. Losing out on this 4G spectrum would be "disastrous" for many small carriers, he said.

Verizon and AT&T together control about 80% of the low band spectrum best suited for mobile broadband, Berry said. "One or two carriers should not be allowed to walk away with the entire pie," he said.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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