$41B auction shows net neutrality is no threat to investment

When President Obama called for net neutrality this month, AT&T said the sky would fall. It warned that a policy banning internet providers from giving special treatment to some websites over others would lead companies to stop investing in new network capacity. So much for that.

As of Tuesday morning, an airwave auction by the FCC is still going gangbusters as companies scramble for a series of spectrum licenses that will let them deliver more data and stream more video to consumer cellphones. While most people expected the bidding to exceed the $10 billion reserve price set by the agency, the FCC has already raked in more than triple that — bids have exceeded $36 billion, and the auction is still going. Companies like [company]T-Mobile[/company], [company]Dish[/company] and, yes, [company]AT&T[/company] are all participating in the bidding. (Update: at close, the auction raised over $41 billion).

Here’s a screenshot from the FCC’s auction website that shows Round 32 of the bidding, and the eye-popping figures at stake:

FCC auction screenshot

Meanwhile, the auction is proving to be a rare bipartisan hit in Washington: Democrats are glad that it will help build a new national emergency communication infrastructure, while Republicans are cheering that the rest of the proceeds — more than $20 billion — will be used to pay down the national debt.

All of this is occurring despite the fact that the airwaves in question could and (in Gigaom’s view) should be subject to so-called Title II regulation, a type of net neutrality that would ban companies from providing fast lanes for some websites, while slowing down others.

In other words, contrary to AT&T’s warning that the specter of Title II would chill investment, what we’re seeing instead is wireless companies — who have long fought net neutrality tooth and nail — falling over themselves to buy up resources that will let them offer consumers more internet.

To be fair to AT&T, its comments were about the company’s plans for a home fiber network, and not about the airwave auction. But that doesn’t change the fact that net neutrality, in this case, has proved no deterrent to investment.

What’s more, the auction process shows again how competition is important to expanding the country’s internet capacity — a lesson that will not be lost of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who is currently mulling another crucial internet policy decision, in the form of a proposed merger between broadband giants [company]Comcast[/company] and [company]Time Warner Cable[/company].