Mobile Future

What SXSW Can Teach Us About Spectrum Auctions

Heading home from South by Southwest (SXSW), inspired by the innovation and entrepreneurial zeal that overtakes Austin each year, I can’t help but think if there’s a way to bring more of this enthusiasm and vision to bear in the critical mobile and tech policy debates underway in Washington.

At SXSW, wireless events were among the most popular with standing room only sessions and lines of hopeful attendees wrapped around the block.  Whether marveling at the 3D capabilities of Leap Motion, sharing in the awe of Supermechanical’s wildly popular Twine, watching Samsung turn up the competitive heat on Apple by offering free pedicabs to Galaxy owners or simply watching waves of people make their way through a new city with their smartphones as their sherpas, wireless was everywhere in Austin.

It’s also essential to the thousands of entrepreneurs and developers who gather here each year.

Back in Washington, policymakers now have the rare opportunity to genuinely help their progress.  Innovators from across the mobile ecosystem—and the consumers who love their products and services—are staring down the threat of a looming spectrum deficit.  SXSW’ers are hardly the only Americans who start to twitch when the power bar on their smartphone turns red.  The idea of being without connectivity, spending more time with the loading bar or watching our favorite apps increasingly fail—is unthinkable.

Critical to preventing this outcome is the success of the FCC’s planned incentive auctions that aim to clear underused broadcast spectrum to make way for high-speed mobile broadband.  These auctions are a cornerstone of the National Broadband Plan, which calls on the FCC to “harness market forces to repurpose high-quality, broadcast-television spectrum for broadband.”  FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, the first to warn of a “looming spectrum crisis,” has made these auctions his top priority.  The entire nation now has a stake in seeing them through.

Without question, this will be the most complex and among the most high-stakes auction the FCC has ever conducted.  And, this week, stakeholders far and wide, including Mobile Future, are offering ideas to the FCC on how it should structure these historic auctions.  While often quite technical in nature, this input and engagement is essential to securing positive outcomes for consumers and our economy.

Our overarching thesis?  Spectrum auction design—like the best design innovations from start-up tech companies—should be relentlessly attentive to consumers and their needs above all.   First and foremost, the FCC needs to ensure an inclusive process.  This means an auction design and licensing rules that put consumers first, allowing all providers to bid for spectrum they need to better serve their customers.  The rules should also encourage broad participation from broadcasters, to ensure as much spectrum as possible can be repurposed in the first place.  Other issues, such as international coordination with our border neighbors, deadlines for clearing repurposed spectrum, and starting the relocation process now where possible all factor into ensuring the auction is successful and allows maximum development of mobile broadband.

With the spectrum crunch looming, timely action is essential—as is getting the job done right. In threading that needle, the FCC could learn something from the entrepreneurs in Austin.  What did I take away from SXSW?  America has no shortage of innovators.  Progress comes from a philosophy of inclusion, openness, collaboration and constructive engagement.  And time and time again, our nation’s mobile and tech leadership has been buoyed by the shared belief that the fewest barriers lead to the most innovation.

The famous battle cry of SXSW’s host city is “Keep Austin Weird.”  As the FCC gets down to the serious and technical business of structuring these mission-critical auctions, here’s hoping it keeps a laser focus on outcomes—ensuring for our economy and our people that there’s much more “weirdness”—and wireless – to come.