FCC Auctions Off Airwaves

The FCC auctions off a huge new chunk of the airwaves for wireless communication. Verizon Wireless bought the best part of the airwaves, known as the "C" block. AT&T also purchased some of the spectrum.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

I'm Michele Norris.

It looks like Verizon is going to dominate the wireless business in the United States. Today, the FCC announced that a partnership between Verizon and Vodafone was the big buyer of a huge chunk of the airwaves for wireless communication. AT&T bought a lot, too. The FCC was auctioning off air space for things like more cell phone traffic or wireless hi-speed Internet access.

NPR's Laura Sydell has been following this story. She joins us now from San Francisco. Laura, remind us why the FCC held this auction?

LAURA SYDELL: Okay. In 2009, there's a whole bunch of spectrum that's going to free up. And the spectrum that's going to free up is the stuff that basically you've been using rabbit ears on your phone to get - I'm sorry, on your television set to get. It's - when we convert to digital for televisions this spectrum is suddenly going to become available. So the FCC thought, wouldn't it be great if we could give this spectrum to the wireless industry where it can be used for phones and mobile devices and all of that. And indeed, they sold it and got $19.6 billion for it. So there will be more spectrum for your phones and mobile devices.

NORRIS: And wireless is certainly a growing industry. Now, from what I understand, Google was interested in this option, also, but they didn't want to buy anything. Could you explain that?

SYDELL: Yeah. Google was very interested in it. Mostly, they wanted to get a rule for this auction, that whoever bought a certain portion of the spectrum had to have it be open access. And the reason Google wanted that was because when you buy right now, you go and you sign up with a carrier, you have to get your phone from them. So they have to - they're the ones who put the software on it, and who basically, set up your phones. Google wants a piece on that action, they basically want to able to put their software on it and their operating service.

So Google pushed for this requirement and the FCC said if we get a minimum bid of a certain amount, then we'll open up that spectrum. So Google did play a role in that it basically it bid the minimum. So now this spectrum will be open in that way, although, because Verizon got pretty much all of it, there's some skepticism that Verizon won't try and get around that open access.

NORRIS: So, Laura, for all those people who has cell phones in their purse or their pocket or in that cell phone cradle in their car, was does this mean for them?

SYDELL: Well, basically what it means - first off, when you think of the Verizon commercials when they say, can you hear me now? Well, you really should be if they start using this spectrum. This is really high-quality spectrum. It goes through mountains, it goes through walls, so it really will give them -Verizon an edge, they will have a really, really good signal.

The only thing, though, that's not so good for consumers, say, various groups is that one of the things they were hoping was going to come out of this auction was that you were going to get somebody other than, say, Verizon or AT&T as a provider of wireless and broadband. And unfortunately, that did not happen and consumer groups are saying that's not so good. But, well at least, when Verizon says, can you hear me now? You really will be able to hear them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Now, a question about emergency responders. Part of the spectrum was supposed to have been shared by emergency responders like police, firefighters. What happened to that?

SYDELL: This - yeah, this is very unfortunate. There was a block that was up for sale that had a requirement. And the requirement was that whoever purchased this block had to leave part of it open for emergency responders during, you know, any kind of huge national emergencies. So, for example, during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, there was a problem for emergency responders - for police and firemen to be able to communicate with one another. And so they wanted to make sure whoever bought this particular block, they had to open it up during an emergency.

Unfortunately, they only got one bid. So, they didn't sell it to anybody. And now, the FCC's going to look into this and see whether or not there's something else they can do to make this happen, because this is a strong push, people really want to have this emergency spectrum.

NORRIS: Thanks so much, Laura.

SYDELL: You're quite welcome.

NORRIS: That was Laura Sydell in San Francisco.

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