FCC Proposes Rules for Freeing Up AWS Spectrum in Advance of Auction

The FCC wants to free-up additional AWS spectrum, potentially largely solving in advance the revenue issue of its upcoming auction.

Spectrum is the most sought-after commodity in the wireless market, and on July 23 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed new rules for freeing up spectrum in four Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) bands that it says will help to ensure "speed, capacity and ubiquity" for mobile devices.

In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC said its goal is to "clear and allocate spectrum in these bands for exclusive commercial use to the maximum extent feasible." Where clearing of the bands isn't possible, it offered "novel approaches to spectrum sharing between commercial and federal operators."

The four bands, collectively referred to in the report as "AWS-3," are in the 1,695 to 1,710, 1,755 to 1,780, 2,020 to 2,025 and 2,155 to 2,180 megahertz bands.

"We are committed to finding new and innovative strategies to expedite commercial access to additional spectrum," FCC Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said in a statement.

Clyburn added that the proposals in the Notice came, thanks to work from the FCC, other Federal agencies, including the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Defense, and the wireless industry.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, in her own statement, said that if done properly, the FCC "can auction 55 megahertz for new mobile broadband uses. This may seem like a little regulatory feat. But it has the power to contribute big things to the economy. ... Consider that mobile data is projected to increase by 13 times in the next five years."

The FCC will next year hold a long-awaited spectrum auction that has already been the source of much pushing and pulling in the industry.

House Democrats, with the backing of T-Mobile and Sprint, are calling for purchase limits to be put in place so that more carriers have a chance of leaving with needed spectrum. House Republicans, backed by Verizon and AT&T, have argued that the government should let the market dictate who gets what, and further that purchase limits could curtail the total revenue raised by the auction.

While revenue isn't something the FCC can normally concern itself with—instead focusing on what's best for consumers—in this instance, it needs to raise a minimum of $7 billion, slated to go to the construction of a nationwide public safety broadband network. (The Democrats have called limits and appropriate revenue not mutually exclusive, and third-party consumer groups have suggested that without limits smaller carriers may not participate and so revenue would suffer without their multimillion-dollar auction entry fees.)

Rosenworcel added that if the FCC's proceedings go as planned, it could in itself "substantially" fund the public safety network "even before we begin our upcoming spectrum incentive auctions."

T-Mobile said in a July 22 statement that it is "very pleased" by the proposed path to make the 1,755 to 1,780MHz band available for commercial use.

"While there are many details that need to be resolved, this is a significant breakthrough toward meeting the goal of licensing this spectrum, paired with 2,155 to 2,180MHz, by February 2015," said Steve Sharkey, director of government affairs for technology and engineering policy.