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Interview: Here’s Why Open Auctions for 2G Spectrum Are the Best Option

Bruce Mehlman explains why open auctions are better for users and the economy

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The war in Washington over wireless spectrum is really beginning to heat up as policymakers and the FCC aren’t seeing eye to eye. The issue is commonly referred to as the “spectrum crunch” since wireless networks are quickly becoming overloaded.

The CTIA found that the number of wireless subscriber connections has surpassed the number of people in the U.S. and its territories. It also found a 111 percent increase in wireless data traffic.

While the situation is by all means challenging, the massive eruption of content that sparked it is both encouraging and exciting.

(image) “We’re in this exciting arms race where the creation of content is happening so fast it’s exceeding even these amazing improvements in computing power, these amazing improvements in storage capacity, and particularly, these amazing improvements in connectivity,” said Bruce Mehlman, the former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Tech Policy and the Co-Chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance.

To help solve this problem of congestion, Congress is currently examining legislation that would free up more spectrum from broadcast radio and television companies. While everyone agrees that more spectrum is needed, the dispute is over how it would be distributed and, specifically, the FCC’s role in this process.

In the past, the FCC has had a very active position in managing the auctions. In other words, it has had the power to place restrictions on auctions or conditions on spectrum based on the bidders’ market dominance and spectrum holdings.

However, the bill that’s currently in the House would remove this power from the FCC, which is a move that is sparking a lot of debate. Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt recently called the proposed bill “the single worst telecom bill” he’d ever seen.

The House argues that previous government allocations are the reason that the current “spectrum crunch” is happening. It also believes that limitations in auctions would result in less revenue to help reduce the federal deficit.

As Mehlman explained to us, Congress is remembering what happened in the controversial 2008 spectrum auctions as well as the recent failed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. He sides with policymakers on this issue because he believes the previous restrictions are to blame for the current problems.

In a post on the Internet Innovation Alliance, Mehlman wrote:

Many in Congress fear FCC micromanagement and seek open auction rules free from FCC interference. The FCC, of course, objects to Congressional micromanagement of their micromanagement, seeking maximum flexibility to set auction rules.

The irony here is that these auctions are needed because the last time this spectrum was assigned, policy makers limited its potential use and transfer. Thus much of the spectrum is under-utilized and our economy suffers for it.

In our recent interview, he expressed concern that the same issues would continue if the FCC were permitted to keep its authority.

“The biggest challenge is if the FCC gets its way and follows through with what many in the House fear they might do, which is limit who’s allowed to compete, I think the very spectrum crunch these very auctions are expected to alleviate doesn’t get alleviated… then problems continue,” pointed out Mehlman.

“I think most people would concede the reason there’s inefficient use of spectrum is because of old government decisions on who could and could not use spectrum,” he continued. “Logically, you want less government constraints in the future.”

Some mobile companies are perfectly happy with the FCC’s authority over the auctions as a group of them led by Sprint and T-Mobile sent a letter to lawmakers asking that the Commission’s position remain the same. AT&T and Verizon are not part of this support since they believe the FCC would favor the smaller carriers.

(image) Incidentally, not everyone agrees that auctions would solve the issue. Rick Whitt, Google’s Washington Managing Counsel, recently indicated that auctions would not completely eliminate the spectrum crunch saying, “Auctions will fall short of meeting that gap.”

Mehlman told us that he agrees with Whitt in that content will likely be created faster than bandwidth can be apportioned. But, he believes that this provides an even greater urgency to get policy in place that would encourage an open marketplace.

“Having everybody eligible to acquire the spectrum and to subsequently sell the spectrum to a higher and better user is letting the market allocate the spectrum,” he said. “If we had done that the first time, we would have less congestion, we’d have more high speed wireless, and, I think, we’d have the same amount of competition.”

“We don’t have a problem with lack of competition, we have a problem with a lack of investment, [and] we have a problem with a lack of spectrum aggregation to meet the marketplace needs,” he added.

(image) Even though Sinclair Broadcast Group CEO David Smith said it was doubtful that Republicans and Democrats would be able to agree on legislation for a broadcast television auction this year, Mehlman thinks it is a possibility. As he explained, this legislation is part of larger jobs bill that both sides want to see pass.

Should auctions be open, or should the FCC have a say? What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Interview: Here’s Why Open Auctions for 2G Spectrum Are the Best Option
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