The FCC's 10 a.m. meeting to set rules for the upcoming auctioning of analog TV spectrum reclaimed in the switch to digital TV has been delayed until at least 12:30 p.m., according to the commission, as the commissioners continue to work on an item that could change the face of the wireless industry.
But by 12:55, there was still no sign of the commissioners, who in this situation are often said to be working on their statements, but may also be working on whether or not they will vote for or against the rules as proposed, or perhaps tweaked at the last minute.
The commission took the first steps toward the auction rules back in April, at a meeting that was delayed some eight or 10 hours as commissioners did some last minute tire-kicking on the items, which included loosening franchise rules for telcos getting into video.
The FCC is under congressional orders to auction the spectrum by January 2008 so the money can be turned over to the treasury. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has said he wanted to give bidders six months notice of the rules, so the commission is under the gun to get it done.
The rules are under heavy scrutiny, with stories in major media about its potential to change the face of wireless communications. There is enough prime spectrum up for grabs to create a competitor to AT&T and Verizon for the hearts, minds and eyeballs of an increasingly mobile populace.
The spectrum auction is expected to collect about $12 billion--government estimates--to as much as $15-$20 billion, which is going to reduce the federal deficit as well as fund emergency communications and the digital-to-analog converter box so that viewers with analog-only TV's will still get a picture after the February 17, 2009, cut-off of analog broadcasting.
One of the reasons the auction needs to get going is that the benefactors of the auction money, including the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which is overseeing the converter box program and the allocation for emergency communications, have already spent some of the money--it was allowed to borrow against the expected revenues. NTIA chief John Kneuer has pointed out that his name is on the promissory note, so he is eager to get the money in the bank, as it were.
Google had been pushing for open access and wholesaling conditions on the spectrum to make it available to a range of devices and potential services, not least of which its own. Frontline Wireless, a company headed by former policymakers including ex-FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, had been pushing for similar conditions on spectrum it would use to create a public-private interoperable communications network.
FCC Chairman Martin's proposed rules would have open access conditions and pave the way for an interoperable public-private emergency communications network, but it does not go far enough for either Google or Frontline, with Martin opposing the wholesaling provision as a disincentive for winning bidders to invest in their service.
The presence of a big player like Google and a big issue like emergency communications post-911 has also helped put a spotlight on the FCC's Tuesday vote. Congress has been paying a lot of attention as well, with the issue essentially splitting along party lines, Republicans arguing for fewer conditions and an open bidding process, Democrats saying that the conditions will allow for new players, more competition, and more consumer-friendly services like device portability.