FCC makes next move on widely opposed T-band auction

The Federal Communications Commission reluctantly moves ahead with plans to reallocate and auction public-safety spectrum.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai testifies in the Senate in June 2019. (Image credit: Aaron Schwartz/Shutterstock)

The Federal Communications Commission is moving unenthusiastically ahead with a spectrum relocation and auction plan that nobody wants.

The FCC on June 6 issued its proposed process to auction off bandwidth in the 470-512 MHz (T-band) spectrum for commercial use.

T-band spectrum is used by public safety agencies in almost a dozen cities, including Boston, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City and parts of New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco/Oakland, and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

Under the relocation plans, public-safety operations in those areas would give up their T-band spectrum in exchange for spectrum in the 700 MHz band. The T-band spectrum would be sold to wireless and broadcast users.

The relocation and auction of the T-band spectrum was mandated by the same Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 that created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which created a nationwide, public-safety wireless broadband network now run by AT&T.

The FCC’s June 6 notice of proposed rulemaking proposed the framework for the auction and asked for public comment on the processes. The NPRM, which seeks public comment and input on plans, is an interim step in the agency’s rulemaking process, two steps away from its final order.

The FCC is moving ahead with the auction plans in spite of opposition from lawmakers, wireless carriers and even the agency’s commissioners, who have said they only reluctantly support issuing the NPRM.

In May, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Tim McKone, AT&T’s executive vice president of federal relations, both called on Congress to repeal the auction mandate. Pai called the auction “a bad idea,” particularly in light of the demands on public safety in the ongoing pandemic.

“There are public safety agencies currently utilizing T-band spectrum to support daily operations and emergency events, including the current COVID-19 public health crisis,” McKone said in a May statement.

Despite legislation currently in the works on Capitol Hill to stop the auction, Congress hasn’t yet acted, and the commission must move ahead to comply with the law, FCC Commissioner Jennifer Rosenworcel said in a June 6 statement accompanying the NPRM.

Along with the possible disruption to public-safety communications, Rosenworcel said the proposed relocation would cost those local authorities “billions more than we can reasonably expect to recover in this auction” and leave them with a dangerous gap in emergency communications capabilities.

Rosenworcel said she “wholeheartedly” agreed with Pai that congressional action that would stop the auction and “allow public safety authorities to continue to communicate using the T-Band is the best way forward.”

However, she said the FCC “shouldn’t sit back and wait” for Congress to address the problem. The NPRM, she said, sets up auction terms that would require winning bids for the spectrum to exceed the estimated $6 billion in relocation costs for public safety.

Rosenworcel cited a Government Accountability Office study from last year that estimated the auction would bring in only $2 billion.

The FCC, she said, should think about setting new licensing requirements and up-front payments from successful bidders.