FCC puzzles mobile broadband crunch and spectrum auctions

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Washington works by twists and turns.

“I keep describing it as a Rubik’s cube”, said FCC chair Tom Wheeler as he answered questions at CES about plans to auction off television frequencies for mobile broadband use. Like a Rubik’s cube, it’s a constantly moving problem on three axes: a reverse auction to buy back TV channels and a regular auction to sell the bandwidth to mobile phone companies, all while repacking television stations into less spectrum. It’s scheduled to happen in 2015, just about the time that the mobile broadband capacity crunch is expected to produce acute consumer pain.

In the meantime, another initiative to free up space for mobile broadband involves making government agencies do a better job of sharing spectrum. Frequencies assigned decades ago in easy going analog times would be sold to telecoms companies to raise money for public safety networks and open up more bandwidth for public use.

Ten MHz of vacant spectrum is scheduled for sale later this month, with the FCC expecting it go for at least $1.6 billion. There’s a chance that won’t happen, though. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel voted against the plan originally and said again at CES that auctioning off more spectrum at once will raise more money. She’d prefer to bundle it with a bigger slice of former government frequencies that’s expected to on the block in the fall.

Altogether, the auctions are expected to net at least $7 billion, which lawmakers say must pay for a complete digital overhaul of the nation’s public safety networks. Hope flows downhill from congress and it’s up to the FCC to put it to good use. “If you work in Washington you’re required to be an optimist”, Rosenworcel said.

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