LAS VEGAS -- Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler committed on Wednesday to a March 29 start date for an unprecedented auction of 600Mhz wireless spectrum now under the control of the nation's broadcasters.
The auction has already been delayed two years, but Wheeler was adamant it will move ahead on a timeline that allows input from broadcasters as well as from wireless providers that would be potential spectrum buyers.
The broadcast spectrum in the 600Mhz band offers the potential to wireless carriers to send data, including video and other multimedia at much faster speeds and with lower latency. Latency refers to the speed required to generate a response to a wireless signal.
"I'm supremely confident [the auction] starts March 29," he said in keynote comments at CTIA Super Mobility Week 2015 here. Explaining the delays, he said the planned auction is like a "Swiss watch with so many moving parts."
The FCC plans to issue a new public notice in October that will give further details on the planned schedule. Wheeler said that around Thanksgiving, broadcasters will be able to indicate whether they want to participate in offering up the spectrum they use today.
Once the FCC establishes pricing, the broadcasters can decide whether to move forward or withdraw from the process if the prices don't meet their needs, Wheeler said. In January, wireless providers — including newcomers, possibly — will be prompted to express interest in joining the auction to buy spectrum.
Wheeler contended that the 600MHz spectrum auction shows the FCC is moving to free up spectrum that the cellular industry says it urgently needs.
Wheeler was introduced at the event by CTIA CEO Meredith Attwell Baker, who accused the FCC of not having long-term plans for freeing up needed spectrum. "After next year's broadcast auction, there is no plan" for more spectrum, she said.
But Wheeler disagreed with that assessment and said newer technologies such as "cell densification" will increase throughput to allow for more wireless users who also are dramatically increasing their use of video and other data.
Wheeler said adding more wireless infrastructure impinges on local communities that approve new cell towers and requires coordination between carriers that build the backhaul fiber-optic connections between towers.
Wheeler said it was his job to be sure that the auction, and prices for spectrum, and not public policy, will govern spectrum growth. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for 600MHz, and a lot of people are looking at what they could do with the properties of that band and the physics," he said. The 600 MHz band, located at the lower end of frequency of the spectrum, allows signals to travel farther, a factor that could reduce the need and cost of new towers.
Baker estimated that six times as much data will run over wireless networks in the U.S. by 2020. "If we're lucky, [today's networks] will handle half that growth." She estimated that 350MHz of new spectrum will be needed by 2020, but Wheeler didn't talk about whether that estimate is within the ballpark of needs.
On a separate subject, Wheeler also defended the FCC's controversial net neutrality decision, which he predicted will survive a federal court challenge brought by major industry players and others. He said oral arguments in the case are being held on Dec. 4, adding, " I feel confident we have a good solid position."