FCC defends auction limits on AT&T, Verizon

A move to limit how much of the country’s airwaves AT&T and Verizon can buy at an upcoming auction is necessary for a “robustly competitive” event, according to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Next year, the FCC is holding an auction to buy up spectrum from TV broadcasters and then resell it to wireless companies, which are hungry to meet consumers' demand for streaming video, games and other wireless access.

Wheeler defended the controversial limits in a blog post on Friday and fought back against critics who have said the measures could doom next year’s event.

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Currently, AT&T and Verizon own about two-thirds of the in-demand “beachfront” airwaves that can travel long distances and penetrate walls.

“This disparity makes it difficult for rural consumers to have access to the competition and choice that would be available if more wireless competitors also had access to low-band spectrum,” Wheeler wrote. “It also creates challenges for consumers in urban environments who sometimes have difficulty using their mobile phones at home or in their offices.”

Under Wheeler’s proposal, Verizon and AT&T will be barred from buying some of the airwaves once a certain amount has been purchased. The FCC will come up with that “trigger” in the coming weeks and months.

The regulators say the cap is necessary to increase competition and allow for smaller companies to take part. Otherwise, Verizon and AT&T could buy up all the spectrum and leave the other guys far outmatched.

The plan has met considerable opposition.

On Thursday, Ajit Pai, a Republican commissioner on the FCC, said that the plan would have the FCC “pick winners and losers."

AT&T has also protested the limits and previously threatened to sit out the auction in response.

But Wheeler called the company’s bluff, and the wireless giant seemed to back off its threat in a filing with the FCC earlier this week.

“Our desire to participate in this auction and our hope for a successful auction is unchanged,” Senior Vice President Robert Quinn wrote in an ex parte document. “We believe that all stakeholders will be able to work together to achieve a successful incentive auction for the 600 MHz band.”