Forget About Cell Phones on Airplanes — the FCC Has Bigger Plans

Bays of equipment stand in the 4G area at an AT&T mobile telephone switching office on October 25, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The center handles wireless AT&T traffic from the western part of North Carolina.
National Journal
Laura Ryan
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Laura Ryan
Dec. 13, 2013, midnight

Cell-phone use on air­lines grabbed all the head­lines Thursday, but while the world wasn’t pay­ing at­ten­tion, the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion moved ahead with less-no­ticed but more-im­port­ant policy changes in its long-term agenda.

FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er hin­ted on Thursday that the agency would im­pose bid­ding lim­its on AT&T and Ve­r­i­zon in an up­com­ing gov­ern­ment auc­tion of spec­trum. The sale, sched­uled for 2015, will al­low wire­less net­works to pur­chase the spec­trum from broad­casters that they need to keep pace with the pub­lic’s de­mand for mo­bile phones and ubi­quit­ous In­ter­net con­nec­tion.

Wheel­er’s state­ments, made dur­ing a House com­mit­tee hear­ing, fol­low AT&T’s in­dic­a­tion Tues­day that it was shift­ing its po­s­i­tion on bid­ding caps, say­ing it is open to caps provided they are ap­plied equally to all par­ti­cipants in the highly an­ti­cip­ated in­cent­ive auc­tion.

The caps are aimed at bal­an­cing com­pet­i­tion between the in­dustry jug­ger­nauts — AT&T and Ve­r­i­zon — and smal­ler car­ri­ers, and have been a hotly con­tested point throughout the run-up to the auc­tion. Har­old Feld, seni­or vice pres­id­ent at Pub­lic Know­ledge and one of the wit­nesses at Tues­day’s hear­ing, said the shift sig­nals to stake­hold­ers in the auc­tion pro­cess that “it’s time to roll up the sleeves and get ser­i­ous about what you can live with in­stead of what you want.”

And that wasn’t all the news Wheel­er had for Con­gress. The chair­man re­as­sured mem­bers that he sup­ports an open In­ter­net — “full stop.”

With a fed­er­al court de­cision im­min­ent for FCC v. Ve­r­i­zon, which con­cerns the agency’s abil­ity to en­force net neut­ral­ity, Wheel­er had sent a ripple of fear around the In­ter­net com­munity in his first pub­lic re­marks last week when he im­plied he may be open to price dis­crim­in­a­tion of In­ter­net traffic.

Fi­nally, Wheel­er prom­ised that his bur­eau­crat­ic be­hemoth is tak­ing ser­i­ously its prom­ise to stream­line the way it op­er­ates. The FCC has been no­tori­ously out of step with the dy­nam­ic, in­nov­at­ive tech­no­logy in­dustry it reg­u­lates.

The House Com­merce Com­mit­tee Wed­nes­day ad­vanced a re­form bill for the FCC, a meas­ure that Wheel­er said Thursday was “sig­ni­fic­ant, noted, and ap­pre­ci­ated.” He is ex­pect­ing an in-house re­port on the sub­ject by the end of the month.

But even as he was mak­ing his pro­clam­a­tions, the FCC got a poin­ted re­mind­er of the tech­no­lo­gic­al chal­lenges his agency faces: Dur­ing Thursday’s meet­ing, the live-stream­ing of Thursday’s open com­mis­sion meet­ing cut out halfway through.

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