FCC kick starts auction plan but airwaves won’t hit your smartphone for years

The FCC kicked off its much-anticipated plans to auction broadcast television spectrum for mobile wireless networks. Here's our story in Friday’s paper.

But it will be years before your iPhone or Galaxy feels the difference, analysts said. That’s because of the long regulatory process ahead at the FCC to get the auction up and running and then make those airwaves available to winners.

Understanding the marathon ahead, trade groups from the consumer electronics industry, rural carriers and tech organizations praised the FCC’s proposal, which is expected to be finalized as an order in mid-2013.

Guggenheim analyst Paul Gallant made some key projections:

1) The FCC will probably succeed in getting broadcasters to voluntarily sell spectrum.

“The FCC will have some flexibility on repacking that can help carve out enough spectrum,” Gallant wrote. “We are more than optimistic than most that the FCC will indeed assemble the hoped-for 60-80 MHz of spectrum to auction to wireless operators.”

Details of the plan are being circulated among the agency’s five commissioners.

2) But it will be years before any airwaves will be used to run your future smartphone, experts say.

If the proposal is approved on Sept. 28, the FCC will take comments from the public and then take replies to comments. A final order will probably come around the middle of 2013. The auction itself will likely take place in 2014.

And it will take an additional one to two years before the FCC finishes repacking TV stations that did not sell spectrum, Gallant said. Repacking, he explains, allows the creation of a clean block of spectrum that is usable by the wireless operators.

“Under this timeline, wireless operators could begin using their new spectrum in the 2015-16 timeframe,” Gallant said.

3) The FCC’s separate proceeding to reconsider spectrum ownership limits probably won’t prompt significant changes to current standards, Gallant said. But consumer groups and companies are eagerly watching for changes that would determine caps on how much spectrum an individual company can have in a certain locality. Consumer groups have pushed for the agency to tighten rules so that the biggest carriers, including Verizon and AT&T, aren’t able to gobble up too much spectrum in the auction.

Related:

FCC kicks off plan to auction airwaves

Verizon, cable spectrum deal approved

How AT&T fumbled deal for T-Mobile

Cecilia Kang is a senior technology correspondent for The Washington Post.

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