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NAB, CTIA square off over spectrum 'hoarding'

Tue, 02/01/2011 - 7:05am
Maisie Ramsay, Wireless Week

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and CTIA are sparring over the FCC's proposed auctions of unused spectrum held by television broadcasters.

In a letter sent Friday to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D – W.Va.), Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and the ranking Republican member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Fred Upton (R-Mich.), NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith said further auctions of television broadcast spectrum should be put on hold until the government identifies what companies and agencies are "sitting on unused airwaves."

"If we as a nation are truly committed to unlocking the technological potential of wireless broadband, we must first get a full and accurate accounting of spectrum users and spectrum warehousers," Smith said.

Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA, reasserted the wireless industry's need for more spectrum and called the NAB's challenge to voluntary spectrum auctions "baffling" in a written response to Smith's letter.

"In order for us to continue to meet the demands of the almost 293 million U.S. wireless consumers for everything from voice to data to Internet access, we must get more spectrum," Largent said. "We are not asking for anything for free. Rather, we are willing to spend tens of billions of dollars more to the government so that we make sure that we can continue to lead the wireless revolution."

Smith's letter comes after comments by Time Warner Cable CFO Robert Marcus during the company's earnings call last week which suggested the company was hoarding the AWS spectrum it purchased together with Comcast, Cox Communications, Advance/Newhouse and Sprint Nextel during the FCC's 2006 auction. The only company to use the spectrum to date is Cox, which launched 3G services in three markets in November of last year.

"On the AWS spectrum, we have no current plans to divest of the spectrum or otherwise monetize it. And at this moment in time, we don't have specific plans to utilize it either," Marcus said, according to a transcript of his comments provided by SeekingAlpha.

Marcus seemed to suggest the company may sell off its spectrum holdings at a profit and cited AT&T's recent acquisition of Qualcomm's Flo TV spectrum, saying the company was "always keeping our eye on what the market for spectrum is."

"If there truly is a 'spectrum crisis,' then allowing companies the size of Time Warner to hoard airwaves should not be permitted," Smith said in his letter.

The NAB's letter cites reports that wireless operators are sitting on as much as $15 billion in unused spectrum. Verizon Wireless and AT&T have yet to deploy commercial services on their AWS spectrum, and Sprint isn't using the AWS spectrum it purchased together with cable companies in 2006.

The FCC wants television broadcasters to give up their unused spectrum holdings so that they can be auctioned off for wireless broadband services. The plan has been deeply unpopular with the broadcast industry and comes less than two years after free and local broadcast stations relinquished more than a quarter of their spectrum holdings to public safety and wireless services as part of the shift from analog to digital television.

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