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Don't delay spectrum auctions

America’s smartphone users have a simple request of the FCC: Don’t delay the spectrum auctions that will enable us to get faster, smoother, and more reliable service. The spectrum auction needs to have top priority at Thursday’s FCC Open Meeting because it’s urgently important and eminently resolvable, unlike some other issues.

The Commission is caught in a particularly intense tug-of-war among commercial interests with stakes in Internet regulation at the moment, many of whom are feverishly excited about proposed “net neutrality” rules they have yet to see.

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It’s apparent that casting chum in shark-infested waters seems to the media to be a better strategy for attracting eyeballs at the moment than boring meditations on serious policy matters can ever be, but let’s deal with a grown-up issue just for a moment; the net neutrality debate has been going on for fifteen years without discernable progress, so it can wait.

The spectrum shortage is a real issue with tangible consequences that the FCC can address in a concrete way without setting off another round of unwinnable lawsuits. Congress has explicitly authorized the FCC to conduct what’s known as a “spectrum incentive auction” (think eBay without “Buy it Now”) in which TV broadcasters can offer their spectrum licenses for sale against a reserve price and mobile carriers can bid on them. If done correctly, the auction will bring billions to the Treasury and increase mobile broadband speeds by 25 to 50 percent, and even more in same locations.

America’s 2010 National Broadband Plan, the game plan that charts our nation’s communication future, devised the notion of spectrum incentive auctions and set targets for the release of new spectrum to wireless carriers to alleviate congested airwaves. Spectrum is the lifeblood of the new economic sector that enables pervasive connections among mobile devices, increasingly the “first screen” for Internet users. Mobile broadband is central to new automotive, educational, healthcare, and social applications.

The auction is complicated by the fact that between the offering of licenses and the bidding for buying for them the FCC has to establish a new “band plan” for any TV stations that don’t participate. This plan will move some of them to new spots on the dial and coordinate with Canada and Mexico to prevent cross-border interference.

The digital TV technology America has been using since 2009 allows stations to send multiple programs over a single channel, and some broadcasters have shown a willingness to share with each other if the price is right; this is another problem for the FCC to consider.

Some interests want the FCC to open up more spectrum for free use at the same time that the bulk of it is auctioned to the firms that provide us with mobile service; another use that has to be protected is the wireless microphones used by churches, performing arts, and TV newsgathering operations.

The Congressional authorization instructs the FCC to maximize auction revenue in order to pay down the debt and to finance a new, nation-wide public safety network based on the same technical standards our best smartphones employ, 4G/LTE. The public safety network, known as FirstNet, will enable first responders across the entire nation to communicate with other in times of crisis, something they couldn’t do following the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.

According to Masayoshi Son, the new CEO of Sprint, mobile broadband can become a competitor to the wired broadband hegemony that provides Internet access to our homes, small businesses, and schools. With enough spectrum, the four nationwide mobile carriers and their dozens of regional rivals will be able to provide much faster service than the typical residential broadband plan does today; five times faster in many cases.

Mobile broadband plans today have usage limits that prevent them from being general purpose substitutes for wired plans, but these limits are a response to the shortage of spectrum, not a permanent fact of life. If we had an additional four nationwide residential broadband options, all but the most ardent net neutrality advocates would agree that regulating Internet Service Providers would be largely unnecessary.

Making more spectrum available is therefore a better preventive against the hypothetical harms that net neutrality seeks to correct than mere regulations, no matter how brilliant they may appear to the mind of the regulator.

The FCC has work to do before it can run the auction. In addition to managing station relocation and interference, it has to decide what to do with its “spectrum screen,” a regulatory device meant to ensure competition by spreading licenses among a large number of firms. Sprint is a nationwide operator with the largest overall pool of spectrum, but it insists Verizon’s and AT&T’s smaller pool is more valuable. Many regional operators favor bidding preferences or set-asides in their favor, but major regional carrier U. S. Cellular says set-asides are unnecessary.

As they say on Facebook, “it’s complicated.”

The FCC has already delayed the auction once and still has a lot of work to do. Relationships among the Commissioners are frayed right now because of the emotional character of net neutrality. The FCC has typically resolved most issues unanimously, but the spirit of trust and collegiality is less abundant these days than it must be to conduct a successful, on-time spectrum auction.

Focusing on a successful auction and then engaging government agencies toward the release of their under-utilized spectrum authorizations is an immensely productive path for the nation’s communications regulator, one that offers a myriad of benefits. Not only can it relieve net neutrality anxiety, it can enable a host of new mobile applications that aren’t even conceivable on wired networks.

Can the FCC prove it’s on the side of the people by making the auction happen on time or must it continue to embroil itself in issues that have no good answers? A successful, on-time auction can win a great deal of good will by doing a great deal of good.

Make it happen.

Bennett is a co-inventor of Wi-Fi and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.