Obama's FCC chief worried about Congress approving spectrum auctions

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski voiced some doubts Wednesday that Congress will approve spectrum auctions to open up more communications airspace. 

Genachowski said at a Brookings Institution panel Wednesday that he won't make bets on Congress passing legislation on incentive spectrum auctions, a top priority of the Federal Communications Commission and a proposal that has bipartisan support on the Hill. 

"I'm hopeful but not certain," Genachowski said. "There have been examples where smart, good ideas didn't go anywhere."

Josh Gottheimer, senior counselor to the chairman, said Genachowski "believes that there is good bipartisan support on this important issue to our future." 

But Genachowski's outlook sounds more pessimistic than before the midterm election. In October, Genachowski touted the momentum behind spectrum auctions, noting that "President Obama endorsed this proposal" and "it is the basis of bipartisan bills in both the Senate and the House."

The FCC chief's relationship with Capitol Hill has soured since then. 

After the November elections, Genahowski's net-neutrality regulations took a place beside healthcare and cap-and-trade in the Republican campaign to highlight government expansion. 

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has promised to make Genachowski "a familiar face" at hearings this year. 

Genachowski reiterated Wednesday that it is essential to move forward with the FCC's main priority. 

"If we don't do it, I'm very worried that other countries in the world will end up with a more robust communications infrastructure than we have," he said.

The FCC wants to hold incentive-based spectrum auctions so that broadcasters can voluntarily relinquish their holdings, freeing up airwaves for cell phones, iPads and other gadgets. 

The proposal has support from the wireless industry and technology companies. AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson, speaking on the same panel as Genachowski, described spectrum availability as a key barrier. 

"The one brick wall we're looking at is spectrum," he said. He added that he is "pleased with where Julius and his staff are on this."

Though Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) told The Hill in November that he will continue to support the auctions, the policy has not received much acknowledgment since House Republicans began articulating their telecom priorities, which largely surround the repeal of net-neutrality rules. 

Analysts say GOP gains strengthened the hand of the broadcasting industry, which is wary about getting fair treatment in the auctions. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the communications subcommittee chairman, is a veteran of the broadcast industry.