FCC Punts on 700 MHz rulemaking

In a rare late-night version of its monthly open meeting, the FCC Wednesday punted on making any first drafts of important rules for the upcoming 700 MHz spectrum auctions, instead pushing back some of the more-controversial elements to allow for more public comment as well as the inevitable behind-the-scenes lobbying and dealmaking.

One partial winner Wednesday was Frontline Wireless, the combination public safety/commercial wireless network plan led by former FCC chairman Reed Hundt. While Frontline’s proposal (which would require a slight tweaking of auction rules) clearly has fans and foes among the five commissioners, by asking for more comments on the proposal the FCC has moved Frontline’s plan from idea to possibility, while all but killing off consideration of a similar but different proposal from the Cyren Call operation.

Another group that is moving in the winning direction is the so-called Coalition for 4G in America, a Google-led group of high-tech players that also includes Intel, Yahoo, eBay, EchoStar and DirecTV. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, in what amounts to a verbal smackdown (in the polite language of FCC proceedings), said he was “surprised” and “puzzled” that other commissioners weren’t more supportive of the coalition’s requests for rules that would help providers build a wireless access network.

Martin’s public flabbergastery — along with some pointed public reservations about the Frontline plan from commissioner Michael Copps — gave ample explanation behind the almost 10-hour delay of the open meeting, which was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. but didn’t start until after 7 p.m. Washington time. While there was easy agreement on some other housekeeping items for the auction — like a rule requiring warning stickers on analog TV sets — the meatier 700 MHz rule arena proved too discordant for commissioners to agree on, leaving only agreement on a “let’s talk more later” order that nobody seemed happy with.

Perhaps that’s because unlike other regulatory proceedings, which can drag on forever, the DTV transition has hard dates mandated by law — so the FCC knows it needs to establish rules soon, so potential bidders can have time to digest them and make economic plans. “We remain highly aware of the need to move swiftly,” said Martin at the meeting’s end.