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FCC spectrum auction authority lapses amid questions on military need

Rounds pushed for a Sept. 30 extension to study military need

Senate Armed Services Committee member Mike Rounds, R-S.D., pushed for an extension of auction authority to Sept. 30.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Mike Rounds, R-S.D., pushed for an extension of auction authority to Sept. 30. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The two senators who sought to buy a few extra months to study the Pentagon’s spectrum needs found their bill stymied Thursday, resulting in a lapse in the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to auction spectrum for the first time in three decades.

Sens. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., the sponsor of legislation that would extend the FCC authority until Sept. 30, and co-sponsor Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, sought unanimous consent to pass their legislation Thursday, but Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., objected. 

Welch supported an extension through May 19, the date included in a bill the House passed last month, spokeswoman Emily Becker said. She said the longer extension would have been a disincentive to a swift agreement on behalf of consumers, saying the public interest would be better served if Congress and stakeholders arrived at an agreement as quickly as possible.

It remains unclear whether the Senate will try again to pass the bill soon. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the floor Monday that he expected the Senate to pass a bill by the Thursday deadline. 

Rounds said on the floor Thursday that an extension until Sept. 30 would allow the Defense Department and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to complete a study on whether wireless spectrum in the range of 3.1 GHz to 3.45 GHz currently under the control of the Pentagon can be opened up for commercial use.

The study “will define DOD’s spectrum requirements and articulate the risks should the department lose access to portions of the 3.1-3.45 GHz frequencies that are home to systems that are used to defend our country from attack,” Rounds said. Short-term extensions force the Pentagon to respond to FCC requests to release a portion of the spectrum the military controls before completing the study, he said, noting that the study was required by law.

Rounds is the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Cybersecurity Subcommittee and a member of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

The practical effect of a lapse is unclear. The FCC didn’t respond to questions about whether it had any auctions planned in the short term.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement that the auction authority has been an “indispensable tool for harnessing the promise of new wireless technologies.”

“Our auctions have proven to be an enormous engine for market innovation and the flourishing internet ecosystem, and for expanding the reach of next-generation connectivity to everyone, everywhere,” she said. “To date, the FCC has held 100 auctions and has raised more than $233 billion in revenues and unlocked extraordinary benefits for the American people.”

She urged Congress to restore the authority quickly.

A significant chunk of spectrum below the 6 GHz frequency — a desirable mid-band part of the spectrum for 5G applications — is used by a variety of federal agencies, including the Pentagon, and making broad swaths available for commercial use is harder without interfering with critical military and intelligence users.

Federal agencies, including the Pentagon, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reserve large portions of the spectrum for their use. The Commerce Department’s NTIA coordinates those uses to free up spectrum for commercial use by telecom and cellphone companies.

House lawmakers criticized the Senate for letting the auction authority lapse.

“We are disappointed that the Senate has not acted to do the same because of the objections of one Senator, and that the FCC’s authority to issue spectrum licenses will expire for the first time ever as a result,” Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., Doris Matsui, D-Calif., and Bob Latta, R-Ohio, said in a statement.

Rodgers is chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Pallone is the panel’s top Democrat. In December Congress approved an extension of the authority until March 9, after the previous 10-year authority granted by Congress in 2012 expired.

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