Updated March 22 at 9:20pm

Airwaves sales sought by AT&T, Verizon poised to clear Congress


WASHINGTON - AT&T Inc. and Verizon Wireless moved a step closer to obtaining additional airwaves needed to meet surging consumer demand for smartphones as U.S. lawmakers agreed on a measure that authorizes sales of wireless spectrum.

The airwaves auctions are part of a broad accord reached Feb. 16 by House and Senate members to sustain a payroll tax cut. The sales would raise at least $15 billion for the U.S. Treasury, Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, said in an interview. The legislative package needs to clear both chambers, with a House vote as early as Feb. 17.

“By freeing up airwaves to be used to build the next generation wireless networks, this package will support massive job creation and untold technological breakthroughs,” Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who heads the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in an emailed statement.

The auctions proposed by the administration of President Barack Obama would sell rights to airwaves voluntarily surrendered by television stations. TV companies would keep a portion of the proceeds. Participating broadcasters could leave the business or transmit using other airwaves. Wireless companies would use the airwaves to support mobile phones, tablets and other devices.

The package also would allocate $7 billion and airwaves for a nationwide network for emergency workers, said an emailed release from Senator Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Commerce Committee. More spectrum for emergency workers was a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that investigated the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, when police and firefighters had trouble communicating by radio.

‘Save Lives’

“This agreement will allow us to build a nationwide, interoperable communications network that is as reliable as the first responders that protect us,” Rockefeller said in an emailed statement. “It will quite literally save lives.”

Spending on the new network may benefit antenna-building companies American Tower Corp., Crown Castle International Corp. and SBA Communications Corp., Paul Gallant, a Washington-based analyst with Guggenheim Partners, said in a Feb. 15 note.

Airwaves sales may spur investment and job creation, the High Tech Spectrum Coalition, a group with members including Apple Inc., Alcatel-Lucent, Intel Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc., said in an emailed statement Feb. 16.

“Congress has made a great decision that will result in significant investment in mobility and will have a meaningful impact on the creation of jobs with private investment,” Rhod Shaw, executive director of the High Tech Spectrum Coalition, said in an emailed statement.

‘Artistic Freedom’

Broadcasters have said they’re concerned TV station owners may face added costs and lose audience if forced to switch airwaves. The legislative measure provides $1.75 billion to compensate for the costs of relocating.

“Tens of millions of Americans rely every day on local TV broadcasters for news, entertainment, sports and life-saving weather warnings,” Gordon Smith, president of the Washington- based National Association of Broadcasters, said in a statement.

“We look forward to working with Congress and the FCC to implement an incentive auction program that does not jeopardize that service,” said Smith, whose group’s members include CBS Corp., Comcast Corp.’s NBC, the Walt Disney Co.’s ABC and News Corp.’s Fox.

Language in the package may make it harder for the Federal Communications Commission to limit participation in the auctions by Verizon, the largest U.S. wireless company, and No. 2 AT&T, Jeffrey Silva, a Washington-based analyst for Medley Global Advisors LLC, said in an interview.

“They wouldn’t have the artistic freedom they’ve had before,” Silva said. “When this started the FCC had carte blanche.”

‘Public Rulemaking’

Under the proposal, the FCC can’t exclude wireless carriers as part of an auction proceeding, Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior executive vice president-external affairs, said in an emailed statement.

“It could only make such a decision through a separate public rulemaking,” Cicconi said. “This provides procedural safeguards, and also an opportunity for a court challenge.”

Cicconi on Jan. 13 said he was “troubled” that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wanted his agency to keep its power to set terms for the auctions.

Genachowski said yesterday the agency has sought to develop “fair, effective mechanisms for providing all carriers an opportunity to obtain spectrum.”

“Congress has recognized the vital importance of freeing up more spectrum for mobile broadband, both licensed and unlicensed, although the legislation could limit the FCC’s ability to maximize the amount and benefits of recovered spectrum,” Genachowski said in an emailed statement.

Biggest Winners

AT&T and Verizon were the biggest winners in the FCC’s 2008 auction of airwaves suitable for smartphone use, spending a combined $16 billion. In 2010, the companies objected after the agency restricted their ability to lease airwaves from a company that is now Philip Falcone’s proposed LightSquared Inc. wireless service.

AT&T in December abandoned a $39 billion merger with T- Mobile USA Inc. after resistance from the FCC and Justice Department, which said the combination would lessen competition. In January AT&T Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson in an earnings call said availability of spectrum is the “No. 1 issue for us.”

AT&T and Verizon combined had 60.3 percent of wireless subscribers in 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Verizon Wireless is owned by Verizon Communications Inc. and Newbury, England-based Vodafone Group Plc.

Sprint Nextel Corp., the third-largest U.S. mobile carrier, said in an e-mailed statement that the legislative proposal “preserves the FCC’s ability to promote competition as it conducts future wireless spectrum auctions.”

‘Job Creation’

“Sprint agrees with the Federal Communications Commission that all wireless carriers -- small, regional and large -- should have a meaningful chance to participate in wireless spectrum auctions,” Vonya McCann, Sprint’s senior vice president for government affairs, said in the statement.

The auctions will help “meet Americans’ voracious appetite for mobile Internet,” Steve Largent, president of CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group, said in an emailed statement Feb. 16.

“Mobile data usage is expected to grow by a factor of 16 over the next five years,” Largent said. “The spectrum made available by this legislation is key to meeting that demand.”


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