Genachowski Commits to Feb. 17 Deadline for Universal Service Reform Options

Also wants plan to re-auction D block of spectrum by that date

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski Thursday committed to a deadline of no later than Feb. 17 to come up with "real options" on universal service reform and a plan for re-auctioning the D block of spectrum.

That came in response to questions at an FCC oversight hearing Thursday in the House Communications Subcommittee.

If the deadline is familiar, it is because it is the date the FCC must deliver to Congress its national plan for universal deployment of broadband.

The chairman suggested that given the importance of both those issues to the plan, it would have to include consideration of those options.

The D-block auction is intended to create a nationwide interoperable network for emergency communications, while reforming the Universal Service Fund is expected to include adding subsidies for broadband deployment.

He was not as forthcoming with answers to some tough questions from Indiana Republican Congressman Steve Buyer. Buyer asked all the commissioners whether they supported exclusive handset deals, demanding a yes or no answer. Genashowski said it was more nuanced than that. "It does not lend itself to a yes or no, I apologize," said the chairman. Calling that a non-answer, the combative Buyer went down the line of the commissioners.

Democrats Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn echoed the chairman, while Republicans Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker were quick to say yes.

Buyer got the same responses on spectrum auctions. Saying he had a problem with the government not making spectrum available to companies in a timely fashion after they have paid for it at auction, he asked whether the government should be required to pay interest on the money to those companies. "We are anxious to penalize companies, but when it comes to auctions we will take their money but we're not freeing up spectrum."

The freeing up of spectrum was a big topic at the hearing.

Chairman Genachowski said he supported legislation requiring the FCC to inventory spectrum, and Copps seconded that, saying the country was clueless about how much spectrum was being used, where and for what.

McDowell said he welcomed a "careful inventory" to find the spectrum, but also pointed out that the government already knew where some of it was, pointing to spectrum in a 2006 advanced wireless services auction and the more recent 700 mhz auction that had not yet been built out, and in the white spaces between TV channels. That is all fabulous spectrum in terms of propagation characteristics he said.

He also reminded the audience that technology was allowing the government to become increasingly efficient with the spectrum it had. He cautioned not to micromanage, and that a government-mandated business plan would likely be superseded by the market.