Rural Service Would Lose Under Spectrum Plan, Boucher Says
Posted at 1:55 p.m. on May 8, 2014
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wants to set restrictions on the amount of spectrum that AT&T and Verizon can buy in the government’s upcoming incentive auctions, but former House Energy and Commerce subcommittee chairman argues that the plan would be a setback for expanding mobile broadband in underserved areas.
“What’s the best approach to achieving the goal of expanded rural service? Don’t restrict the auction by cutting out companies that currently serve rural America and want to expand their presence there,” wrote Rick Boucher, who represented a largely rural portion of Virginia in the House for nearly three decades, in a blog post at the Internet Innovation Alliance, where he is honorary chairman.
The FCC is preparing to free up spectrum currently licensed by broadcasters, and Wheeler has proposed putting up to 30 megahertz of it in “reserve” for bidding only by non-dominant players once the auctions reach a “trigger” point.
In a blog post, Wheeler called his proposal, in part, an effort to prevent one or two wireless carriers from dominating the auction:
Today, however, two national carriers control the vast majority of that low-band spectrum. This disparity makes it difficult for rural consumers to have access to the competition and choice that would be available if more wireless competitors also had access to low-band spectrum. It also creates challenges for consumers in urban environments who sometimes have difficulty using their mobile phones at home or in their offices.
The proposal also would benefit Sprint and T-Mobile, the number three and four carriers.
But in his blog post, Boucher — who sat at the helm of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee that oversees communications and technology, and who currently heads Sidley Austin’s government strategies group — indicates that rural customers wouldn’t benefit from the proposal, which he described as a “rig” of an auction:
Availability of high-speed mobile broadband depends on service providers that agree to actually deploy cell towers there—something both Sprint and T-Mobile have failed to commit to doing in the future. They seem perfectly content to focus their core efforts on areas where revenue per square mile will be highest. The “back 40” of Manhattan contains a lot more people, after all, than the back 40 of a ranch in New Mexico or Montana.
Boucher, who served in the House 1983-2011, goes on to write that Sprint and T-Mobile haven’t publicly committed to using newly-acquired spectrum to serve rural areas. Meanwhile, AT&T and Verizon have said they would use additional spectrum “to serve nearly a population of 300,000,000, bringing advanced mobile broadband services to less densely populated areas,” Boucher writes.
And they already serve a large portion of rural areas in the country and offer the “same competitive nationwide pricing and calling plans that they offer in the suburbs or cities,” he writes.
“If satisfying Wall Street’s demands for Sprint and T-Mobile to use newly acquired spectrum only to serve revenue-rich urban and suburban broadband customers is the nation’s primary goal, the FCC may be on the right track,” he writes. “On the other hand, if expanding mobile broadband deployment to rural Americans everywhere, from the mountains of western Virginia to the open ranges of the West, best serves the public interest, the FCC may want to choose a different path.”
In criticizing the proposal, Boucher joins Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, who also dislike the proposal, as well as AT&T and Verizon.
Groups including Public Knowledge, the Benton Foundation and the Center for Media Justice, operating under the umbrella of the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition, released on Thursday a letter to Wheeler supporting the proposal, but also said it wouldn’t go far enough to promote competition.