Right-Sizing Spectrum Auction Licenses: The Case for Smaller Geographic License Areas in the TV Broadcast Incentive Auction
37 Pages Posted: 22 Nov 2013 Last revised: 5 Sep 2014
Date Written: November 20, 2013
The wireless sector is a key contributor to economic activity and growth. Over the next several years, wireless service providers are expected to invest $25 to $53 billion upgrading and expanding their networks to deploy 4G mobile broadband across the nation. All told, wireless broadband investment and the services and innovation supported by such investment are expected to add between $259 and $355 billion to US GDP each year through 2017.
The Federal Communications Commission ("Commission" or "FCC") is currently designing several spectrum auctions including the largest ever auction of terrestrial wireless spectrum, currently planned for 2015 (the "Incentive Auction"). The purpose of the Incentive Auction is to free up to 120 MHz of prime spectrum in the 600 MHz band, currently licensed to over-the-air TV broadcasting, to be repurposed for licensing for mobile broadband and other higher value wireless services. To accomplish this goal, the FCC proposes to use a two-part auction process in which broadcast television license holders submit bids for relinquishing their licenses ("Reverse Auction"); and commercial broadband providers bid to acquire licenses to the spectrum freed up ("Forward Auction"). The FCC is currently evaluating various auction design elements to promote competition in the auction. To best ensure this important goal, the FCC is considering a number of auction design features, including spectrum aggregation limits, constraints on the types of bidding allowed, and the appropriate framework to use for the license territories to be used in the Forward Auction. This paper focuses solely on this last issue. We explain here how adopting appropriately small-sized geographic territories is necessary to promote competition and other important economic and social goals, while noting that right-sizing the license territories may not by itself be sufficient to ensure adequate competition and participation in the Forward Auction. For example, the Commission could adopt smaller license sizes and still end with an auction where the two largest wireless carriers aggregate all of the offered spectrum. Such an outcome would be inconsistent with the goal of promoting competition in wireless services.
The territory size used for spectrum licenses is as important for valuing spectrum as the parcel size is to real estate value. If all plots were 50 acres, parcels in Manhattan would be too expensive and too large for most; this might compel buyers interested in a small parcel in Manhattan or a parcel in New Jersey adjacent to Manhattan to bid for land they don't want. Alternatively, otherwise qualified buyers might be prevented from buying land altogether. Analogously, wrong-sizing spectrum license territories to be used in future spectrum auctions, and in particular the Incentive Auction, is likely to result in significant and unnecessary inefficiencies in the allocation of scarce radio frequency spectrum resources. For carriers who are compelled to bid for wrong-sized spectrum license packages, the added cost may be sufficient to discourage their participation; or if they do participate, they are less likely to offer successful bids; or if they are successful, they will have fewer resources available to deploy services using the spectrum. In each case, the efficiency of the auction and the larger goals of the process suffer.
This paper explains why sufficiently small geographic areas, such as Cellular Market Areas ("CMAs"), are a more appropriates license territory framework to use to ensure that licenses are right-sized in the Forward Auction. Industry participants and the FCC have successfully used smaller geographic license sizes to auction spectrum in the past, and doing so in the Forward Auction offers important advantages. Using smaller territories is better than using the larger Economic Areas ("EAs") or even intermediate-size Partial Economic Areas ("PEAs") because smaller areas efficiently match the needs of bidders to the spectrum they seek. Their use ensures that the planned auction will reallocate spectrum resources efficiently while promoting competition, economic growth, and universal broadband service.
Smaller license areas are better than EAs because smaller areas will help to maximize the amount of spectrum that is repurposed for the Forward Auction. Specifically, smaller areas should increase the ability to allow for market variation in areas where limited amounts of spectrum are procured through the Reverse Auction, while reducing the amount of spectrum lost due to international border coordination with Canada and Mexico or other encumbrances. Smaller geographic license sizes should also maximize opportunities for efficient participation by both large and small wireless service providers, and promote efficient build out of spectrum acquired through the Forward Auction. Looking at past auctions, evidence suggests that auction proceeds would be optimized through the use of smaller areas as opposed to EAs. Moreover, using smaller territories is more consistent with the long-term direction of efficient spectrum management reform and future wireless markets, including access to spectrum through secondary market transactions. Finally, this paper rebuts some of the arguments made to date against the use of smaller geographic license areas.
Interested parties, particularly the Competitive Carriers Association ("CCA") and their members, have pressed the FCC to license the Forward Auction licenses using smaller territory sizes. These efforts, which included sponsoring an earlier draft of this paper, resulted in a compromise, intermediate solution. The FCC has moved from recommending that the Forward Auction be licensed using Economic Area territories to a compromise territory size based on Partial Economic Areas ("PEAs"). Nonetheless, the debate over the appropriate territory size for FCC licenses continues. As the future of spectrum management is trending toward more granular management of spectrum resources (in space and time), moving toward smaller area regulatory licenses is consistent with this trend; however, the debate continues. We emphasize that while the geographic area of the license is important, there are many other features that must also be considered holistically in order to design an appropriate spectrum auction or management framework, and as such, are likely to vary by band. The focus of the analysis here, while applicable more generally, is on the design of the upcoming Broadcast Incentive Auctions.
Keywords: FCC, incentive auction, wireless spectrum, mobile broadband, internet
JEL Classification: H42, I31, H54, K23, L13, L51
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation