Broadcasters' Report Cries Foul on FCC Whitespace Auction Plans

If you search the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan for the word ‘femtocell’, you won’t get any results. According to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), that’s a worrisome sign. The FCC is convinced that there is a scarcity of spectrum for smartphones and other mobile devices, so they’re keen on pushing a bill, which would allow them to auction off some television broadcasters’ spectrum, as quickly as possible through the legislative process.

But in a study released last week, the NAB counters that the regulator should put the brakes on its auction plans, or at least round it out with some alternative approaches. The study argues that the FCC hasn’t taken into full account the capacity increasing powers of technologies like femtocells (which 70-80 percent of wireless carriers have said they plan to use), cognitive radio, better receiver standards, and spectrum sharing. And, says the NAB, the FCC hasn’t even done a proper accounting of how broadcast and wireless companies are using currently-licensed spectrum.

The NAB recently asked Uzoma Onyeije, who served as an FCC attorney in the wireless and wireline bureaus from 2001 to 2006, to conduct a study on how comprehensively the FCC has mapped the current state of licensed spectrum resources, and how significantly alternate ideas to increase spectrum capacity would affect spectrum availability. The Onyeije study evaluates the sources and assumptions that are behind the FCC’s declaration of a wireless spectrum crisis, and questions whether sufficient data gathering has been conducted on spectrum utilization. It’s reasonable to answer this, Onyeiji said, before legislation locks in on auctions as the number one way to meet wireless spectrum demand.

The lack of a sound spectrum inventory is turning out to be the crux of the NAB's concerns, potentially outweighing the absence of femtocells from the FCC playbook. Christopher Ornelas, Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for the NAB, and Matthew Hussey, a former engineer and now an aide to Senator Olympia Snowe (Republican of Maine), argue that even a basic comprehensive inventory of spectrum availability and usage is nonexistent, at the FCC or elsewhere.

If no one is entirely sure how much broadcast spectrum is underutilized, they asked, then why is there a rush to hold auctions? Until spectrum utilization is quantified in a granular way, how can the best practice approach to future utilizations be decided?

The NAB insisted that such questions are not designed to simply stall incentive auctions, and, in fact, the trade group does not systemically oppose the auctions. The idea that wireless carriers have ever-growing spectrum requirements is not lost on NAB officials, and the association supports the FCC plan, provided that participation on the part of licensed television broadcasters is voluntary.

This caveat, however, may prove to be tricky. Television broadcaster CBS, for instance, has recently made it clear that it is uninterested in partaking in the auction, and will retain the full range of its currently-allotted spectrum. It will be interesting to see if other television networks follow suit. However, such a stand might not isolate them from the spectrum repackaging process altogether. Onyeije said that even if broadcasting companies choose not to partake in the auctions voluntarily, they still stand to have their spectrum shifted or replicated in a different space, which introduces the possibility of service disruptions.

But for now a voluntary auction may be the compromise – the companies pushing for immediate auctions are represented by over $1 trillion in revenue. And in March, 112 leading U.S. economists signed a letter to Congress endorsing voluntary incentive auctions for the spectrum. Holistic approaches to spectral efficiency will still happen, but in part include technologies that are still in pilot phases. Christopher Guttman-McCabe, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs for the CTIA (The Wireless Association), said that there’s a window for auctions now, and that requests to increase wireless spectrum should be addressed immediately if the exploding demand from the mobile marketplace is to be met.

Guttman-McCabe insisted that Onyeije’s critique is a delay tactic. Over two thousand companies -- even companies that are themselves developing alternate technologies to increase existing spectrum efficiency -- have requested auctions, he said.

For example, at the Mobile World Congress this year, Qualcomm demonstrated femtocell technology that led to substantial increases in network capacity, findings which the company also filed with the FCC last month. And, Guttman-McCabe said, Qualcomm is also an advocate for bringing more spectrum to wireless carriers.

Perhaps outside of Washington, diverse approaches to spectrum demand can exist harmoniously after all.

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