FCC moves to auction TV airwaves to cell carriers

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Although all five commissioners voted for the plan at Friday's open meeting, they expressed concern about the complexity and daunting nature of the multibillion dollar restructuring of airwaves.

Commissioner Robert McDowell, a Republican, compared designing the auctions to playing "three-dimensional chess while blind folded."

The commissioners said the proposed rule-making was only the first step in a long process and that they were eager to hear input from the public.

Congress authorized the auctions as part of tax cut extension legislation earlier this year but left the details of the implementation to the FCC.

The revenue raised from the auctions will be used to cover the cost of paying the broadcasters, and an additional $7 billion will be used to build a nationwide broadband network for first responders.

Wireless carriers are struggling to meet the skyrocketing 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 spectrum crunch is a major looming headache for consumers," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said, adding that if policymakers failed to act, consumers would face more dropped calls and spinning pinwheel icons as their devices struggle to load Web pages.

The FCC's proposal would buyback the TV licenses and hold the auctions to wireless carriers simultaneously. 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 proposal would reserve 6 megahertz guard bands for unlicensed use between broadcast and mobile broadband frequencies. The commission sought comment on proposals that would make a "substantial amount" of additional spectrum available for unlicensed use.

Unlicensed spectrum is available to any company that meets technical interference standards. A variety of devices, including Wi-Fi routers, rely on unlicensed spectrum.

After the auctions, the FCC will reshuffle the spectrum positions of the remaining broadcasters, a process known as "repacking." The FCC sought comment on how best to repack TV stations while preserving viewers' access to over-the-air local programming.

Both McDowell and the other Republican commissioner, Ajit Pai, questioned whether the plan would reserve too much for spectrum for unlicensed use. Pai approved the plan in part and concurred in part.

Genachowski said he was surprised at the resistance to setting aside more spectrum for unlicensed use. He argued that unlicensed spectrum has spurred innovation and billions of dollars of economic activity.

"This is a time to be embracing and extending Wi-Fi-like uses of spectrum," he said.

Steve Largent, president of wireless industry trade group CTIA, applauded the vote and said the commission took "an important step toward alleviating the looming spectrum crisis."

Gordon Smith, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said his members are "committed to working" with the FCC throughout the auction process. But he expressed skepticism that many broadcasters, especially those in urban markets, will want to sell-off their licenses and go out business.

"If there's a stampede coming, we certainly aren't hearing any hooves," he said during a conference call with reporters.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the vote brings the country "yet another step closer to creating a truly nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network for our first responders."

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subpanel on Communications and Technology, said that if the FCC implements the law well, it "has the potential to help meet Americans' hunger for mobile broadband services, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and raise billions of dollars toward build-out of the nationwide, interoperable public safety network called for by the 9/11 Commission."

—Updated at 3:37 p.m.