Consumers have a lot riding on the FCC’s upcoming spectrum auction

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Next year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will undertake one of the most important wireless spectrum auctions ever.

The FCC will allow wireless companies to pay TV broadcasters to vacate their TV channels — and then provide new wireless service over those airwaves. The airwaves used to broadcast television signals are some of the best wireless spectrum for cellphone networks. In major markets, wireless companies will pay hundreds of millions of dollars for a single station’s spectrum. This auction has been projected to raise between $60 and $80 billion for the right to use that spectrum; winners will have to spend hundreds of billions more to build out their wireless networks.

The spectrum going up for auction is within the 600 MHz band. Cellphones today operate on frequencies between 600 MHz and 3000 MHz (3 GHz), but bands below 1 GHz have by far the best ability to provide service over distance and inside buildings. Consequently, they require substantially (up to 93 percent) fewer towers to cover the same area.

The availability of this spectrum will play a critical role in the deployment of next-generation cellular networks. These fifth-generation networks have the potential to offer download speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second — 20-times faster than Google Fiber and 400-times faster than current cellphone networks.   

This auction will also set aside spectrum for use by new unlicensed technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Too many people have set up Wi-Fi devices at home only to realize they don’t get any coverage in the one place they need it. Repurposing this spectrum for such devices will improve their range, speed and ability to pass through walls.

Today, AT&T and Verizon hold 73 percent of all spectrum below 1 GHz. Those spectrum holdings have allowed them to build dominant networks that cover more of the country and have better service within buildings.

A major problem that companies like T-Mobile, Sprint and others have faced when trying to compete in the wireless market is that spectrum below 1 GHz isn’t available in sufficient quantity. This auction is critical, because it will be the last opportunity for the foreseeable future for anyone to get their hands on significant amounts of that spectrum.

This auction could have an adverse impact on American consumers for years to come. As the Justice Department observed in a letter to the FCC, the largest carriers have an incentive to prevent others from getting access to 600 MHz band spectrum — namely “forestalling entry or expansion [by other companies] that threatens to inject additional competition into the market.”

That’s why several of my colleagues and I urged the FCC to set aside spectrum in this auction for smaller carriers to ensure that the dominant carriers couldn’t stifle competition by gaming the auction. Recognizing this issue, the FCC subsequently set aside a spectrum reserve for nondominant carriers. While a larger reserve would have done more to promote competition among the wireless carriers, I believe that this set-aside will go a long way toward ensuring that this auction creates a more dynamic and competitive marketplace — ideally, one that provides at least four carriers with the spectrum necessary to compete with each other nationwide to attract and retain customers. 

The benefits that all Americans would receive from increased competition include lower prices, more flexible plans and better service. Competitive markets drive innovation and investment, and everyone benefits from lower prices and better offerings.

In order for us to realize all of these benefits, we need both television broadcasters and wireless companies to participate in this auction on a large scale. The FCC has dangled the promise of tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in front of stations to encourage them to participate, and it’s been holding meetings, workshops and webinars for broadcasters around the country to explain how the auction will work. It’s essential that the FCC continues these efforts and refines the auction process to make participation as easy and seamless as possible. To bidders interested in buying licenses to this spectrum, I suggest you get out your checkbooks and think big.

Wireless technology has transformed our country and the world. Wireless broadband has given rise to smartphones, wearables and the Internet of Things — and we’ve barely scratched the surface of its potential. New spectrum means new opportunities for innovation and growth. We all need to work to ensure that this auction is a success — that is, that American consumers and innovators benefit from it.

Doyle represents Pennsylvania’s 14th Congressional District and has served in the House since 1995. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee and on the subcommittee on Communications and Technology.