FCC Head Talks Opportunities, Hurdles to Spectrum Auctions, Sharing

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, during a recent speech, said he'll soon begin circulating a plan that includes sharing Department of Defense spectrum.

When Tom Wheeler became chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in October, the 800-pound gorilla waiting on his desk was the nation's need for more wireless spectrum. Wheeler's tenure as chairman will be all about figuring out how to make more spectrum available and (arguably more challenging) divvying that spectrum up between the wireless carriers.

During a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., March 24, Wheeler shared more of his thoughts on spectrum incentive auctions (the world's first ever will take place in mid-2015) and spectrum sharing, two policies, he said, that "together hold the promise to completely revolutionize the way we manage our airwaves—and in so doing provide the underpinning for economic growth."

On the matter of sharing, Wheeler said he'll soon circulate a detailed proposal to his fellow commissioners that will follow through on recommendations made in the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report in July 2012.

The PCAST report recommended sharing and targeting the 3.5GHz band as, in Wheeler's words, an "innovation band." The PCAST report likens such sharing to a superhighway used by various parties, adding that allowing the private sector to "make intensive use of currently underutilized" parts of federal radio spectrum would "unlock economic benefits."

The Department of Defense currently uses the 3.5GHz band for radar installations and some fixed satellite services.

Sharing would, first, entail three tiers of prioritization: "federal and non-federal incumbents, priority access licenses and general authorized access users."

Second, it would include a "single, highly flexible band plan, avoiding the analog trap of Balkanizing spectrum into sub-bands, each with its own sets of rules."

Third, said Wheeler, it would be used for a variety of things, and small cells "will undoubtedly be a core use case," though it won't be limited to that.

Additionally, the proposal will reflect economic incentives, said Wheeler.

"Even with the most efficient technology, there will always be places and times where there is rivalry for spectrum access," said Wheeler. "To that end, the proposal would set up a flexible auction and licensing scheme that leverages the technical capabilities of a Spectrum Access System database."

On the topic of the incentive auctions, Wheeler said that the television broadcasters giving up their spectrum are in the enviable position of getting to take home a check for spectrum they're not making use of, and the FCC, in planning the auction, is in the unenviable spot of needing to ensure the auctions comply with the detailed instructions provided by the Spectrum Act of 2012 and of winging it around unknown variables—such as how many sellers will show up and how much spectrum they'll part with.

But the bottom line on the matter, he said, is that incentive auctions "could revolutionize spectrum policy by applying economic forces to the allocation of spectrum and not simply the assignment of individual licenses."

If the industry will work together, that is.

"There are two controlling forces in spectrum policy: the laws of physics and the laws of human nature. Of the two, physics is the easy hurdle," Wheeler explained, adding that the novelty of these ideas' newness has, predictably, created "anxiety."

"I hope I am clear on this point. I understand the legitimate equities of those we are asking to confront change, both broadcasters and other incumbent spectrum holders. And I understand that, inevitably, with change comes the perception of risk," he said. "But if we proceed responsibly, as I am confident we are, the rewards of vastly improved spectrum policy will make our collective endeavor entirely worthwhile for everyone."

Wheeler concluded by saying that while sharing and auctions are giant pieces of the FCC's mobile agenda, they're not everything. The FCC also intends to use Wheeler's favorite tool: "competition, competition, competition."

"It is worth repeating," he said, "that as long as I am chairman, competition will be at the center of our spectrum agenda."

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