The Senate voted unanimously to confirm President Obama’s two nominations to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), overcoming obstacles by Republican lawmakers, especially TX Senator Ted Cruz. Tom Wheeler was confirmed as FCC Chairman along with Michael O’Reilly as a commissioner. That filled the two F.C.C. seats that have been empty since the previous chairman (Julius Genachowski) announced his resignation last March.
The highest priority FCC issue is likely to be the structuring of “spectrum incentive auctions,” in which the commission would sell licenses to mobile carriers and broadband Internet companies (e.g. Google) allowing them to use newly available bands of the public airwaves to transmit phone and data traffic. Those auctions are scheduled for summer of 2014.
Unlike previous F.C.C. spectrum auctions, these will be more complicated. The F.C.C. first has to persuade the current license holders that use the airwaves — mostly television broadcast stations — to either give up their spectrum or agree to move to another frequency band or channel.
As an incentive to get those television stations to cooperate, Congress gave the F.C.C. permission to offer to share some of the proceeds of the auctions with the broadcast TV stations. Most of the remainder of the auction proceeds are designated for use in building a new nationwide public safety network for use by first responders. That’s been a national and California goal for over a decade, but there’s been little or no progress.
“The incentive auction is the most complicated spectrum auction the FCC or any government has ever done,” said Blair Levin, who served as chief of staff to former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and more recently oversaw the development of the National Broadband Plan. “It would be easier for government to simply mandate transferring spectrum for broadband, but there was a consensus we should try a market based approach to determine the price at which some broadcasters would voluntarily sell to mobile providers.”
The FCC also faces a closely watched legal challenge over its authority to enforce the “Open Internet” rules that are the basis of net neutrality, the idea that broadband providers should not discriminate against rival services. In that lawsuit, telecom giant Verizon claims that the FCC overstepped its legal authority in creating the rules. The outcome of the case could affect anyone who uses the Internet, the tech giants who have built billion dollar businesses online and the thousands of start-ups that hope to follow in their footsteps.
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“I am humbled by the Senate’s confirmation and I look forward to taking the oath of office in the coming days,” Wheeler said in a statement Tuesday. “What excites me about this new responsibility is how we are at a hinge moment of history; the Internet is the greatest communications revolution in the last 150 years. We must all dedicate ourselves to encouraging its growth, expanding what it enables, and assuring its users’ rights are respected.”
“Tom Wheeler is known for his integrity and fair-mindedness,” said MMTC President David Honig stated. “With his leadership, we are certain that diversity, equal opportunity, and inclusion will be top priorities at the FCC. We look forward to working closely with him and the commissioners to advance minority participation in the nation’s most influential industries.”
“I congratulate Tom Wheeler and Mike O’Reilly on their confirmation to serve on the Federal Communications Commission(FCC). The FCC has an ambitious agenda ahead of it, including first and foremost successful implementation of the world’s first ever broadcast incentive auctions. I look forward to working closely with Chairman Wheeler and all ofthe Commissioners to enhance competition, promote innovation and above all else, protect American consumers.