As momentum across the government gathers behind policies to make larger portions of spectrum available to wireless carriers to handle the growing volume of mobile data, industry players are hoping that the auctions through which the licenses will be sold will not carry significant conditions.
Meantime, the trade group representing the television broadcasters who would be asked to relinquish their spectrum licenses in exchange for a cut of the revenues generated at auction, is working to slow the process. The group on Tuesday sent a letter to the leaders of a House working group on spectrum professing skepticism about the often-repeated refrain of a looming spectrum crisis and asking for a comprehensive inventory of the current allocations.
But for the wireless industry, gathered here for CTIA's Wireless 2012 conference, the spectrum shortfall is doctrine, and many policy makers agree. Earlier this week, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski delivered a keynote address at the conference touting the many initiatives his agency is pursuing to free up more spectrum for mobile broadband.
Legislation enacted earlier this year charged the FCC with conducting so-called incentive auctions to reallocate spectrum from broadcasters to wireless providers, but that's only the beginning of what could be a multi-year process. Later this year, the FCC plans to begin the rulemaking proceeding regarding how the auctions should be structured, and Verizon, a likely bidder, is hoping that the rules will not include burdensome conditions.
"We have always thought this would be a long process," Charla Rath, Verizon's vice president of wireless policy development, said in a panel discussion here on Wednesday. "One of the things that's on our mind is to keep any conditions to a bare minimum."
Verizon has opposed auction conditions in the past. Most recently, ahead of the 2008 auctions of the 700 MHz spectrum freed up by the transition to digital TV, the firm sued to strike an open access condition in one block of the spectrum. The firm ultimately dropped its lawsuit, and the open access condition was attached to the spectrum, much of which was purchased by Verizon.
Angela Giancarlo, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell's chief of staff, admitted that designing the next round of spectrum auctions will be a daunting challenge, in part because of the added complexity of language in the statute that provides for a round of reverse auctions.
"I think it's safe to say that this is going to be a very long slog," Giancarlo said. "But we're very eager to get going on that. We certainly recognize how important that is to the industry."
But while the New Orleans convention center was abuzz this week with talk of additional spectrum to build out the capacity of high-speed mobile broadband networks, back in Washington the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) issued the latest salvo in its campaign challenging the notion of spectrum scarcity.
In a letter to Reps. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), the co-chairmen of the newly formed Federal Spectrum Working Group, NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith cited news reports challenging the "spectrum crisis" and suggesting that wireless companies and other spectrum holders might not be putting their current licenses to full use.
"[W]ithout a fulsome inventory and complete accounting of how spectrum is being deployed, how can we be certain that claims of a spectrum 'crisis' are valid?" Smith wrote.
"If this country is truly facing what many are calling a spectrum 'crisis,' then Congress should require a comprehensive inventory that details who is using spectrum today. Reasoned policy decisions and thoughtful considerations of these matters simply cannot honestly and earnestly be debated without the facts," he added.
CTIA, which has reliably served as the NAB's sparring partner in the debate over spectrum policy, shot back in a statement, accusing the group of pursuing a "deny and delay strategy."
"The flat-earthers at NAB are at it again, denying the existence of a spectrum crunch that experts across the developed world recognize as the most serious challenge facing the mobile industry," said Jot Carpenter, CTIA's vice president of governmental affairs.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
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