Recap: Why the FCC Repack is Important for Consumers

Radio waves may be invisible to the naked eye, but the regulated spectrum of frequencies is one of America’s most important resources. To ensure that the nation’s infrastructure is ready to support emerging wireless technology, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently completed a spectrum ‘repack.’ In a webinar hosted earlier this week by the American Consumer Institute (ACI), representatives from the FCC and various industries detailed how the repack process carefully balanced the interests of consumers, businesses, and the federal government.

Technology such as cell phones and wireless internet relies on reliable and uninterrupted access to dedicated radio frequencies. The FCC is tasked with managing licensed and unlicensed access to these frequencies (collectively known as ‘spectrum’). To keep up with the needs of evolving technology, and to make sure that the nation’s spectrum is being put to its best use, the FCC embarked on an almost five-year process of repurposing and reorganizing frequencies previously used for broadcast television.

Speaking at the ACI webinar, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai detailed how this process employed the world’s first two-sided auction for spectrum rights. In a reverse auction, an equilibrium price was determined by the FCC and broadcasters who were willing to relinquish their licenses. In the forward auction stage, the soon-to-be vacant spectrum was auctioned under flexible licenses that can be used to provide mobile broadband. By balancing these two auctions, the FCC used market forces to allocate spectrum for its most efficient use among competing interests.

For consumers, the process resulted in even greater spectrum for new emerging wireless technology. By reorganizing the broadcast licenses, an additional 84 megahertz (MHz) was made available for emerging wireless technology. That additional allocation will pay dividends for consumers, as domestic carriers race to roll out 5G technology.

Nonetheless, the 39-month repack phase posed a potential disruption for broadcast television viewers. As over-the-air broadcasters shifted to new frequencies, consumers had to rescan their televisions to find their channels again. The FCC’s Jean Kiddo, who serves as the Chair of the Incentive Auction Task Force, highlighted in the webinar how a consumer outreach initiative was launched to smooth the transition to new frequencies. With the help of a dedicated hotline, experts were made available to walk consumers through the necessary steps in both English and Spanish.

With both the auction and repack now completed, this ground-breaking exercise demonstrates the potential for reorganizing radio frequency licenses with the help of market forces. Well-defined usage rights are a basic part of reliable wireless connections, but the FCC also needs to play an active role in priming the market for evolving technology. Similarly, as a valuable national resource, frequency licenses shouldn’t be gifted away. Balancing the interests of consumers, businesses, and the federal government, the successful two-sided auction and repacking provide a replicable way forward for the FCC.

A recording of the webinar is available here. Moderated by ACI president and CEO Steve Pociask, the webinar featured a discussion among the FCC Incentive Auction Task Force’s Jean Kiddoo and Hillary DeNigro; Peter Starke, Vice President for Broadcast, American Tower; Steve Sharkey, Vice President for Engineering and Technology, T-Mobile; and Rick Kaplan, General Counsel & EVP, National Association of Broadcasters. Representative Greg Walden, the Ranking Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, offered an introduction to the event, which was followed by remarks by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

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