Mobile Future

Time to Step up to the Plate for Spectrum Auctions

It’s hard to look at any form of media these days without finding a story illustrating the fervent competition that defines today’s wireless market. Headlines scream that carriers are cutting prices and offering customers more data for less money. And the nation’s four leading wireless carriers routinely tout their massive capital investments—more than $30 billion in 2013 alone—in building ever better, ever faster networks.

This is great news for consumers.  Another benefit of our fast-moving, connected wireless world is transparency.  It’s getting harder for companies to say one thing to Wall Street and another to policymakers tasked with looking out for consumers on Main Street.

Last week, Sprint’s Senior Vice President of Product Development did what SVPs often (and should) do: He bragged on what he believes makes his company better. “We believe that our spectrum position allows us to take a more aggressive stance in offering more data.”

T-Mobile took a step even further in a press release earlier this week: “T-Mobile has more network capacity per customer—and a remarkable 70% more network spectrum per customer—than even Verizon.”

These proclamations are likely to raise both eyebrows and ire at the FCC as it nears the finish line of a years-long effort to engineer auctions designed to free more spectrum for U.S. wireless networks while raising billions of dollars for the U.S. Treasury. Though the Commission set the rules of the road months ago, once again, T-Mobile and Sprint are now going to the FCC, hats in hand, asking for special treatment in these auctions.  Specifically, T-Mobile is pushing the FCC to block the company’s two largest competitors (both Mobile Future members) from bidding on up to half of the spectrum offered in the upcoming auction of the 600 MHz band.  And Sprint calls on the Commission to just look the other way and ignore significant portions of the company’s spectrum holdings to allow Sprint to stockpile even more spectrum

Both in the U.S. and abroad, the record with regard to such auction hijinks is clear: Consistently negative consequences when governments seek to control auction outcomes—and consistently positive outcomes, meaning an array of bidding participants are able to acquire the spectrum they need, when the government takes a “hands-free” approach and resists the urge to engineer the market.

The FCC must roundly reject such self-serving requests.  In today’s more transparent world, you can’t have it both ways: Desperately seeking special spectrum handouts from government while simultaneously declaring spectrum superiority.

It’s time for these companies to put considerable financial resources where their media statements are in the upcoming spectrum auctions.  In terms of the public interest—from consumers, to innovation, to revenues for the U.S. Treasury, to our economy —it’s the right call to make.