Lawmakers Split on Pai’s C-Band Auction Plan

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UPDATE FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to auction a portion of C-band spectrum for wireless use without waiting for legislation from Congress has met with mixed reactions from lawmakers who oversee the agency. Pai proposes that the satellite companies using the lower portion of the band be compensated as much as $9.7 billion if they move to the upper portion of the band quickly.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), who’s been pressing the agency for conducting a public, rather than a private, spectrum auction, said it was too high, Inside Towers reported.

Kennedy chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the FCC’s budget. He said the amount was not fair to taxpayers.  

However, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the subcommittee chairman, said the proposal, “reflects the principles” of a bill the pair introduced last year that would require the U.S. treasury to receive at least half of any C-band auction proceeds. “Winning the race to 5G requires having additional spectrum available in order to deploy advanced networks,” said Wicker. “I have advocated giving the commission the flexibility to get this done quickly while protecting taxpayers.” 

In the House, lawmakers were split. Energy and Commerce Committee Republican Leader Greg Walden (R-OR) and Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Republican Leader Bob Latta (R-OH) praised the plan, saying: The U.S. must win the race to 5G; it’s us or China.”

They are fine with the accelerated payments to the satcos. “The incumbent license holders agreed to the accelerated relocation of their operations on the C-band spectrum. This ensures critical mid-band spectrum gets to market for the deployment of 5G services,” said Walden and Latta.

But House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), chairman of the communications and technology sub-committee, disagreed. They believe the Commission should wait for Congress to act. “The questionable legal basis for the satellite incentives will likely result in litigation, which will delay the deployment of 5G,” Pallone and Doyle said. “Moreover, without congressional action, this auction will not fund critical public safety infrastructure or bridge the digital divide.”

Pai said the agency has the legal authority to conduct the auction, which he wants to begin on December 8. “If you believe that advancing American leadership in 5G is important, if you believe it is a priority to make 5G spectrum available quickly, and if you believe that mid-band spectrum is especially critical, waiting for Congress to act first isn’t the best strategy,” Pai said.

Three out of five FCC commissioners — Pai, Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr — support the plan, giving it enough votes to pass during an open meeting scheduled for February 28.

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