FCC seeks workarounds for lapsed auction authority


Telecoms companies and industry associations have submitted recommendations for how the FCC should allocate spectrum, despite losing their auction authority.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is seeking ways to circumvent its lack of spectrum auction authority.

Some of the nation’s largest telecom companies have offered recommendations, but there is plenty of disagreement on how the FCC should utilize loopholes to award spectrum.

In March 2023, Congress declined to renew the FCC’s authority to conduct spectrum auctions. The Commission is now unable to issue new spectrum licenses and dispute over usage of the lower 3GHz band of spectrum is ongoing.

After over a year, the FCC is still unable to conduct spectrum auctions. So far, T-Mobile is the only large company that has publicly raised a complaint, but the FCC is keen to explore solutions beyond Congress.

T-Mobile has previously taken spectrum issues directly to Congress. After the FCC lost auction authority, T-Mobile was unable to access the licenses it was awarded during Auction 108, which occurred while the FCC still had auction authority. Ultimately, legislation from Congress instructed the FCC to release auction winnings, but did not restore broader authority.

A Public Notice, released by the FCC in March, sought comments on “how the Commission should fulfill its responsibility to make spectrum resources available for use in the public interest in light of the ongoing lapse of the Commission’s auction authority”.

The FCC mentioned several bands of spectrum it might make available for use in the public interest. These bands, called “Inventory Spectrum” by the agency, include 600MHz, 700MHz, 800MHz, AWS-3, PCS, BRS and MVDDS.

The Commission asked for comments on several questions, including whether it could utilize its ‘Special Temporary Authority’ (STA) to release spectrum, approve spectrum-sharing or lease spectrum licenses. Final comments are to be submitted by 22nd April.

Some of the country’s largest wireless operators and industry bodies have urged the FCC to use its STA process to make spectrum available.

The CTIA, the major lobbying association for large US wireless operators submitted comments stating that where needed, “STA licenses may be a rational vehicle for making spectrum available from the Inventory Spectrum pending reauthorization of the agency’s auction authority.”

Verizon agreed, noting that any proposed options are “inferior to assigning Inventory Spectrum by auction” but that “the Commission could rely on its special temporary authority to grant access to Inventory Spectrum licenses on a temporary basis”.

In its comments to the FCC last week, T-Mobile concurred, having first suggested the use of STA last year. T-Mobile noted that there are well-established processes for issuing STAs, meaning that spectrum can be available quickly.

While the large wireless operators argued that the FCC should not rely on spectrum-sharing, the NCTA encouraged the agency to use “coexistence-based frameworks” to license spectrum. The NCTA represents, among others, the country’s large cable companies, such as Comcast and Charter Communications.

EchoStar, the parent company of Dish Network, prompted the FCC to offer “right of first refusal” for Inventory Spectrum to “non-incumbent carriers (more specifically, every carrier other than AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon)”.

As the FCC seeks the return of its auction authority, these interim measures aim to allow consumers and enterprises to reap the benefits of additional spectrum. Given the political deadlock in Washington, there is no clear indication when the FCC will be able to auction spectrum again.

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