Auction Nears for Valuable Wireless Spectrum

Within weeks, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is expected to set conditions for the auction of the most valuable wireless spectrum still available in the U.S.

The spectrum, in the 700MHz band, is highly coveted by a range of broadband providers, tech vendors and wireless voice providers for the ability of signals to broadcast long distances and penetrate buildings and other obstacles. With no other auctions of large spectrum blocks on the horizon, many organizations have pitched a range of conflicting ideas and auction conditions to the FCC.

"This particular spectrum ... is the single biggest and most valuable block of spectrum I can ever remember, and I've been in this for close to 40 years," said Morgan O'Brien, co-founder of Nextel and author of a much-debated spectrum proposal. "It's unbelievable spectrum, and of course, there's a lot of intense interest in it."

Advocacy groups such as Public Knowledge and Consumers Union say this auction represents the best and last opportunity for large portions of the U.S. to have a third broadband provider that competes with the cable and telecom giants. These groups are asking the FCC to require that part of the auctioned spectrum be sold with so-called open-access rules attached -- meaning the winner of the auction would have to sell wholesale access to the network to any company that wants it.

At the same time, large broadband and wireless providers argue that placing heavy conditions on the spectrum would decrease its value and would hamper their efforts to create next-generation services. While the FCC has often set some conditions for auctions, rules on how the spectrum can be used would decrease the number of bidders, suggest critics of open-access requirements.

The U.S. Congress has set a goal of raising US$10 billion, with about half going to reduce the U.S. government's budget deficit, but some observers expect the auction to raise billions more, if the FCC sets the right conditions.

Part of the spectrum, now used by U.S. television stations for over-the-air broadcasts, is targeted for public safety agencies such as police and fire departments. During the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., emergency responders found they couldn't talk to each other because they were operating a variety of incompatible communication devices in different areas of the spectrum.

In early 2006, after more than a decade of debate, the U.S. Congress voted to require television stations to move to digital broadcasts and abandon the 700MHz band between channels 51 and 69 by Feb. 17, 2009.

The move to digital television, or DTV, will free up about 84MHz of spectrum, with 24MHz set aside for public safety. The remaining 60MHz is set to be auctioned by early 2008.

Here are some of the ideas for the 700MHz spectrum auction:

One of the earliest proposals seeking changes to the congressional plan for the spectrum came from startup Cyren Call Communications Corp., founded by Morgan O'Brien. His plan, announced in April 2006, would take an additional 30MHz of spectrum for public safety, in addition to the 24MHz assigned by Congress.

The spectrum would be controlled through a public safety broadband trust at the FCC, and would be available for commercial uses after public safety agency needs are met.

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