FCC Pushes Congress on Spectrum Auction Authority, ACP Funding at Oversight Hearing

Commissioners from both parties emphasized the issues to the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

FCC Pushes Congress on Spectrum Auction Authority, ACP Funding at Oversight Hearing
Screenshot of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel at the hearing Thursday.

WASHINGTON, November 30, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission asked Congress to move on renewing the agency’s auction authority and funding the Affordable Connectivity Program at a House oversight hearing on Thursday.

“We badly need Congress to restore the agency’s spectrum auction authority,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel at the hearing. “I have a bunch of bands that are sitting in the closet at the FCC.”

Rosenworcel pointed to 550 megahertz in the 12.7-13.25 GHz band. The commission would “be able to proceed to auction on that relatively quickly” if given the go ahead, she said.

The commission’s authority to auction spectrum expired for the first time in March after Congress failed to extend it. Auction authority lets the commission auction off and issue licenses allowing the use of certain electromagnetic frequency bands for wireless communication.

Repeated pushes to restore the ability, first handed to the commission in 1996, have stalled in the face of gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Opening up spectrum is becoming more necessary as emerging technologies and expanding networks compete for finite airwaves. The Joe Biden administration unveiled a plan this month to begin two-year studies of almost 2,800 MHz of government spectrum for potential commercial use.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said that’s not fast enough. “I would have had the spectrum plan actually free up more than zero megahertz of spectrum,” he said.

Rosenworcel said the FCC was in talks with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency that wrote up the plan, during the drafting process. When asked if the NTIA followed her recommendations, she said she would “like everyone to move faster and have a bigger pipeline in general.”

Commissioners expressed support for a House bill that would give the FCC temporary authority to issue the licenses it already auctioned off for 5G networks in the 2.5 GHz band. An identical bill passed the Senate in September.

T-Mobile took home more than 85 percent of the 8,000 total licenses in the band for $304 million, but the company and other winners cannot legally use their spectrum until the FCC issues the licenses.

Affordable Connectivity Program

Also at the top of commissioners’ minds was the Affordable Connectivity Program. Set up with $14 billion from the Infrastructure Act, the program provides a monthly internet subsidy for 22 million low-income households.

The program is expected to run out of money in April 2024.

“We have come so far, we can’t go back,” Rosenworcel said. “We need Congress to continue to fund this program. If it does not, in April of next year we’ll have to unplug households.”

The Biden administration asked Congress in October for $6 billion in the upcoming appropriations bill to keep the ACP afloat through December 2024. The government has been funded since September by stop-gap measures, with House Republicans ousting former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, over his unwillingness to cut spending and making similar demands of his replacement.

A coalition of 26 governors joined the chorus of calls to extend the program on November 16. Lawmakers, activists, and broadband companies have been sounding the alarm on the program’s expiration for months as the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment effort gets underway. Without the subsidy, experts have said, households could be unable to access the new infrastructure built by BEAD.

Representative Yvette Clarke, D-NY, said of the ACP shortfall that she is “looking forward to introducing legislation on that very subject before Congress concludes its work for the year.”