(Adds further details of Wheeler's letter, proposed rules and
By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON, April 17 The top U.S.
telecommunications regulator on Thursday reasserted his
commitment to helping smaller national wireless carriers get
access to valuable lower-frequency airwaves in the upcoming
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, in a
letter to Representative John Barrow, reaffirmed his plans to
restrict how much spectrum the biggest U.S. carriers, Verizon
Communications Inc and AT&T Inc, could buy in the
auction scheduled for mid-2015.
"The Incentive Auction offers the opportunity, possibly the
last for years to come, to make low-band spectrum available to
any mobile wireless provider, in any market, that is willing and
able to compete at auction," Wheeler wrote to Barrow.
"At the same time, a priority of the auction should be to
assure that companies that already possess low-band spectrum do
not exploit the auction to keep competitors from accessing the
spectrum necessary to provide competition," he also wrote.
Wheeler's letter comes a day after AT&T, the No. 2 wireless
provider, threatened to sit out the auction altogether over the
regulator's proposed restrictions.
Wheeler's plan would reserve part of the spectrum, up to 30
megahertz, in each market for bidding only by carriers that
control less than one-third of low-frequency airwaves there.
The reserve would kick in only after the auction reaches a
particular trigger, which will be established in coming months,
according to people briefed on the proposal. The plan is
expected to be formally circulated at the FCC later this month
and voted on at the May 15 public meeting.
The rules would benefit the No. 3 and No. 4 nation-wide
carriers Sprint Corp and T-Mobile USA as they
would largely restrict Verizon and AT&T, which Wheeler said
control some two-thirds of those frequencies across the country.
In the letter, Wheeler argued that the smaller national
carriers need a boost in getting low-band spectrum to provide
more and better rural coverage, and to correct what he called
"the historical accident of previous spectrum assignments."
Critics have argued that Sprint and T-Mobile both had a
chance to acquire more low-band spectrum in the past but for
various reasons chose not to to so. They also say that
restricting the biggest providers amounts to regulators picking
winners and losers.
AT&T, in a filing disclosed on Wednesday, expressed concerns
that having 30 MHz of spectrum out of bounds for some carriers
may mean that in some markets, only one restricted bidder -
presumably either AT&T or Verizon - would have an opportunity to
buy a block of airwaves large enough to deploy LTE technology.
"Such restrictions would put AT&T in an untenable position,
forcing AT&T to reevaluate its potential participation in the
auction," Joan Marsh, AT&T's vice president of federal
regulator, said in the filing.
Though AT&T's threat of auction boycott on Wednesday was
seen by some observers as a bluff, lack of the carrier's
participation could put a squeeze on how much cash the FCC
raises in the sale of airwaves.
Congress has required the FCC to raise enough money to pay
back TV stations for giving up the airwaves that will be sold in
the auction and fund a new $7 billion public safety network.
"Companies are free to advocate the views that are in their
best interest, but the public interest is not measured against
the business model of one or two companies; it is measured
against the ability of the market to deliver the benefits of
competition to Americans in urban, suburban and rural America
alike," an FCC official said on Thursday.
Wheeler's letter was in response to one on Monday from
Barrow, a Democrat from Georgia, and 77 other lawmakers in the
House that encouraged the FCC as it prepares for the auction.
(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Marguerita Choy)