FCC moves to auction airwaves by 2014

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The commission's proposed timeline is similar to the one sought by the wireless industry, which called for the auctions to be held by mid-2014.

The FCC will vote on moving ahead with the proposal at its meeting later this month.

Wireless carriers are struggling to meet the booming demands placed on their networks by data-hungry smartphones and tablet computers. They have urged policymakers to find ways to free up more radio frequencies, called spectrum, for their cell towers. 

The law instructs the FCC to pay the television broadcasters to voluntarily give up their spectrum licenses for auction to the wireless carriers. 

The revenue raised from the auctions will be used to cover the cost of paying the broadcasters, and an estimated $15 billion in auction revenue will be used to pay for the tax cuts that were in the bill.

A senior FCC official explained that the commission is aiming for an aggressive 2014 deadline because it plans to buy back the spectrum and hold the auctions almost simultaneously. 

The official noted that no country has attempted such a spectrum buy back and auction before, but he emphasized that the commission is being advised by "world-famous" experts in economics and engineering.

"In freeing up spectrum for wireless broadband, incentive auctions will drive faster speeds, greater capacity, and ubiquitous mobile coverage," Chairman Genachowski said in a statement provided to The Hill. "These are essential ingredients for innovation and leadership in the 21st century economy where smartphones and tablets powered by 4G LTE and Wi-Fi networks are proliferating, and the mobile Internet becomes more important every day. Over the last few years, the U.S. has regained global leadership in mobile innovation – and we must not let up now."

Steve Largent, CEO of the wireless industry's trade association, CTIA, said he was "very pleased" that the FCC is beginning the process of implementing the spectrum auctions.

"The FCC is taking a vital step that will foster continued growth in the U.S. while encouraging wireless innovation that will have a significant impact on many additional sectors of our economy, including education, healthcare, transportation and energy,” Largent said in a statement.

But it is unclear how many television stations will want to give up their spectrum licenses, which would essentially put them out of business. If not enough broadcasters participate, the whole plan could fall apart.

As part of the order, the FCC will launch a public education campaign aimed at encouraging broadcasters to give up their licenses.                   

The official said the proposal also includes safeguards to prevent large areas of the country from being left without any local broadcast stations.