700MHz filing deadline: What's next?

Companies wishing to bid in the upcoming 700MHz auctions at the US Federal Communications Commission are largely silent about their plans

Companies wishing to bid in the upcoming 700MHz auctions at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission were largely silent about their plans Monday, the deadline for submitting bid applications.

Google on Friday announced it plans to bid on the spectrum, often called "beach front" property because it can carry wireless broadband signals three to four times farther than some other spectrum bands. An AT&T spokesman on Monday confirmed the company's earlier statements saying it intends to bid.

A Verizon Wireless spokeswoman declined to comment on the company's bidding plans. Verizon in September had filed a lawsuit against the FCC for its so-called open-access requirements on about a third of the 62MHz of spectrum to be auctioned starting in late January. But last week the company announced it would open up its existing network to outside wireless devices and applications starting in 2008. So Verizon's objections to the FCC's similar open-access rules seem to have subsided.

Sprint Nextel does not plan to participate, a spokesman said. "Sprint has all the spectrum it needs to meet its strategic business needs," spokesman Scott Sloat said.

Startup Frontline Wireless, made up of wireless industry and government veterans, has also indicated it plans to bid in the auctions. There could be dozens of other bidders, including regional wireless carriers and broadband providers.

What happens now?

The FCC plans to make the names of the auction applicants public by December 28. For one of the first times, the FCC is conducting an anonymous bidding process, so it will not disclose what sections of spectrum applicants intend to bid on.

The auctions begin on January 24, but they could last several weeks. Auctions go on as long as bidders keep bidding; the FCC's last major auctions, its advanced wireless services auctions in 2006, lasted about five weeks. If reserve prices aren't met on parts of spectrum, the FCC will re-auction those bands.

The auction is conducted electronically with numerous rounds per day, with time frames for rounds growing shorter as bidding activity heats up.

Why is this auction important?

The 700MHz auctions represent the last large chunk of spectrum available for the FCC to auction in the foreseeable future. In addition, the spectrum, now used to carry over-the-air television signals, can be used to carry long-range wireless broadband traffic. Many people, including FCC Chairman Kevin Martin have said the auction represents a golden opportunity to create a nationwide broadband network in competition with the providers of cable modem and DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and fiber-based services.

Some consumer groups have called the auctions the "last, best hope" for a third pipe that competes with cable operators such as Comcast and DSL and fiber-based providers such as AT&T and Verizon Communications.

While many observers see the spectrum as optimal for wireless broadband, some carriers may use it for traditional wireless voice traffic as well. Some plans for the spectrum will likely include networks that merge traditional wireless voice with high-speed data services. Google seemed to be headed in that direction when it launched an open-development handset coalition in early November.

In addition, about 20MHz of spectrum will go toward a nationwide voice and data network for public safety agencies, including police and fire departments. The U.S. Congress set aside about half of that spectrum for a public safety umbrella group, and the other half will be auctioned, with the winning bidder required to build a nationwide network that serves commercial and public-safety needs.

Several lawmakers and public-safety officials pushed hard for the spectrum after communication problems during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. and later disasters. Public-safety agencies, using a wide variety of devices on different bands of spectrum, weren't able to communicate with each other.

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Grant Gross

IDG News Service

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