Former Top FCC Aide: Congressional Limits Cramp Spectrum Auctions

Josh Smith

While last week’s payroll-tax bill gave the Federal Communications Commission the authority to sell more spectrum licenses to private companies, former FCC chief of staff Edward Lazarus said on Thursday that limits placed by Congress could limit the amount of available spectrum in the end.

“New spectrum legislation obviously holds a lot of promise, but there are a lot of restrictions that Congress put on the FCC,” he said at an event hosted by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.

After nearly three years of developing and enacting policies under Chairman Julius Genachowski, the FCC is entering a phase where it will face challenges implementing polices like spectrum auctions, Lazarus said.

Lazarus, who left the FCC on Jan. 31, said during his tenure the agency took steps to increase broadband adoption, free up wireless spectrum, and enact network neutrality rules to try to prevent anticompetitive behavior online. Now, after phases of developing plans and building a foundation of policies, the FCC needs to put these plans and policies into practice he said.

Lazarus sees managing spectrum in a way that will benefit consumers, companies, and the government wallet as a delicate balancing act. “Driving public interest is not always the same as driving revenue maximization,” he said.

Lazarus also pointed to legal and congressional challenges to the FCC's authority, and debates over wireless competition as areas where the agency will be tested as it seeks to manage spectrum.

In the wake of the FCC’s decision to block AT&T’s merger with T-Mobile, Lazarus said there is no “magic number” of companies that will ensure a competitive wireless market. Instead, regulators must look at how companies are acting, he said.

On the LightSquared fiasco, which came to a head while he served at the FCC, Lazarus said he couldn’t point to any one thing that he thinks the FCC could have done differently. 

When global positioning systems manufacturers complained last year that the company’s proposed network could interfere with GPS, the FCC “put up a big red stop sign,” and eventually proposed blocking LightSquared from moving forward last week, Lazarus said. Still, he questioned why concerns about GPS interference were not raised earlier in the process.

GPS receivers will need to be designed to coexist with LightSquared’s spectrum at one point or another, Lazarus said. “It would be bad policy over the long run” if that band is left unused, he said.