Roadblocks could worsen for FCC wireless efforts

The FCC has spent months selling its recommendation by declaring what's good for wireless broadband is good for the economy.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski detailed that idea at a "spectrum summit" last month.

"The facts — we all know them — are plain," he said. "A little more than a decade ago, there were 61 million mobile subscribers in this country. Now, there are 293 million."

He said 61 million Americans have smartphones.

"I think we see where that number is headed," he said.

A thriving wireless industry benefits everyone from online retailers to apps developers to device creators. In turn, every other sector of the economy gets a boost, Genachowski said in the speech.

Helping the economy does not raise much congressional rancor. But roadblocks remain.

For the FCC to move on its plan, Congress has to authorize incentive spectrum auctions. The likelihood might shrink after the elections.

GOP gains could give broadcasters a stronger ability to drag their feet on the legislation. Broadcasters will have more sway if the GOP makes gains Tuesday, analysts at Stifel Nicolaus said in a note this week.

"Incentive auction authority remains an ambitious goal, particularly if, as appears likely, it is tied to broadcast spectrum," the note said.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the House Communications subcommittee chairman, has been one of the strongest supporters of incentive auctions. But he is in a tough race to keep his seat.

Observers said his presence could sway the fate of the bill.

One said his presence could be decisive, arguing "if the [National Association of Broadcasters does not] want it passed, the only way it does [pass] is if Boucher is reelected," according to Sascha Meinrath, the director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative. He advocates measures that are more aggressive with freeing up spectrum than the FCC proposal.

Still, telecom lobbyists who favor the auctions insist they are hopeful.

They note that bills to authorize the auctions have been introduced in both chambers on a bipartisan basis (Sens. Olympia Snowe [R-Maine] and John Kerry [D-Mass.); and Reps. Boucher  and Cliff Stearns [R-Fla.]). 

Plus, the auctions would raise money for the Treasury, which will appeal to a Republican Party promising fiscal responsibility.

"This would not only help meet growing wireless broadband demand, it could also raise substantial revenue to address the deficit," Stearns said.

That said, no one predicted the auctions will advance during the upcoming lame-duck session.

In his statement Tuesday, Stearns also said the proposal could help bring the Internet to underserved areas.

It might "help us reach some of the five percent of the country that still lacks access to broadband, since wireless service may be a more economical way to reach those remote, often rural parts of the country than running wires great distances and over mountains," he said.

Updated at 4:06 p.m. with a statement from Stearns.

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