The Battle Over Spectrum Intensifies

The bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission are set to make their play at picking wireless winners and losers, aiming to get Congressional approval to set conditions for winning bidders of the next round of spectrum auctions.

Unlike previous auctions, which involved largely unused frequency bands, this time the FCC must re-allocate portions of the 700 MHz spectrum currently in the hands of broadcasters. The FCC needs Congressional approval to move forward with a plan to transfer those licenses.

While the Senate and House both have no problem with the transfer itself, the FCC has won key allies in the Senate, including Sen. John Kerry, in an effort to win more expansive power in setting auction rules, mostly to favor bidders who pledge to honor pet ideas of the progressive Left, like network neutrality. The House, on the other hand, simply wants the FCC to do its circumscribed job of spectrum allocation and brooks no such central planning adventures.

Here’s how The Hill sums it up:

The proposed law would authorize the FCC to auction airwaves, or spectrum, that currently belong to television broadcasters, splitting some of the revenue with the stations that choose to participate. The spectrum is potentially worth billions of dollars to wireless carriers, which are struggling to meet the growing data demands of smartphones and tablet computers.

The House GOP version of the legislation would restrict the FCC’s ability to impose conditions on the companies that buy the spectrum and would prohibit the FCC from designating the spectrum it reclaims from broadcasters for unlicensed use. Unlicensed spectrum, which can be used by any company for free, powers technologies such as WiFi, garage-door openers and remote controls.

All the concern for the unlicensed aspect in this auction (such as today’s forum) is a feint in the direction of public interest arguments. There’s no spectrum crunch for home WiFi and garage doors. The FCC, rather, is looking for a back door way to impose network neutrality on wireless service. Net Neutrality, while a great theory, is unworkable in practice, especially in 4G wireless, which this round of spectrum will support. It is even arguable that 4G wireless technology itself is a network neutrality violation, because of the sophisticated way it can adjust bandwidth and throughput based on second-to-second capacity demands.

What’s disingenuous about making special rules for bidders who “promise” to follow politically favored technology models is that, in the end, engineering and physics trump bureaucratic vanity. If the FCC gets the power to set technology conditions, within a year or two the “winners” will be back asking for “exemptions.” The consumer harm is that companies that know how wireless networks should be properly engineered will be hobbled at the expense of companies who only know how to tell the current regulators what they want to hear. Can you say Solyndra?