FCC approves plan for auctioning 700MHz spectrum

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has approved a plan for auctions of wireless spectrum in the 700MHz band, taking the first step toward the multibillion-dollar sale of spectrum being abandoned by television stations.

The FCC late Wednesday approved an auction plan that would sell pieces of the spectrum in chunks of varying geographic sizes, including metropolitan areas, larger regional economic zones and multistate regions. The FCC also will invite comments on a number of proposals for the spectrum, made available after the U.S. Congress voted last year to require U.S. TV stations to switch to digital broadcasts and abandon channels 51 to 69 by February 2009.

Several large tech companies had called for the FCC to auction spectrum in large geographic areas. Auctions of 60MHz of spectrum, expected to raise at least US$10 billion, are required by early 2008.

Tech and telecom companies are eyeing the new spectrum for a variety of wireless broadband services. Each tower transmitting in the upper 700MHz spectrum band can cover as much as four times the large geographic area as towers in higher bands, experts say.

The new spectrum will give many U.S. broadband customers the choice of a "third pipe," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in a statement. The spectrum auction promises to bring broadband choices not only to big cities, but to rural areas as well, he added.

"In much of the country, however, consumers have a choice of only two broadband services: cable or DSL," he said. "And in some parts of the country, consumers don’t even have that choice. We need a real third broadband competitor."

The FCC asked for comments on a number of proposals for the spectrum, including proposals by consumer groups calling themselves the Save Our Spectrum Coalition, which called for open access on a chunk of the spectrum. The FCC also mentioned Frontline Wireless, which proposed that the agency license a 10MHz block under the condition that the auction winner would build a nationwide infrastructure to support a broadband network for public safety agencies.

The FCC also wants comments on other opportunities for public-private partnerships that will "help bring our first responders the benefits of broadband," Martin said.

Members of the Save Our Spectrum Coalition praised the FCC's action. "If the commission adopts the rules we suggest, consumers will benefit from having more companies offer more types of services in many different areas," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a member of the coalition.

But Frontline officials expressed concern over what they called the FCC's "hesitancy" to push harder on the company's proposal to provide the public safety network. Much remains to be done to make the proposal a reality, Frontline said.

“There is still time for the FCC to do the right thing to meet the needs of public safety users for interoperability and of commercial users for innovation, choice and competition,” Frontline CEO Haynes Griffin said in a statement. “But unfortunately it remains unclear whether the FCC will seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity of this auction to meet these critical needs. Failure is not an option.”

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called the Frontline proposal "intriguing."

"This country has a dilemma," he said in a statement. "Policymakers all agree that our first responders need the best technology and communications networks possible. Yet, we continue to have a situation in which many of our nation’s public safety agencies struggle to keep pace with today’s rapidly evolving communications landscape."

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