AT&T peddles modified auction approach for C-band

AT&T met with Federal Communications Commission officials last week to reiterate its view that the reallocation of the C-band should occur as quickly as is “reasonably practicable,” and it has some ideas on how the FCC can make it happen while ensuring proper legal footing.

“As AT&T has repeatedly made clear, AT&T does not oppose a private auction,” the company said in an ex parte filing (PDF). “But such an approach would likely stay on schedule only if the Commission closely oversees the auction to ensure it complies with the legal and policy principles adopted by Congress for auctions, based on a complete record where all stakeholders are given the opportunity to comment on the auction procedures.”

AT&T noted that there is significant potential for a private auction to become mired in legal challenges or to fail altogether. To minimize the potential for such delays, “it is important for the Commission to be closely involved in developing and supervising the auction," and conduct a thorough notice and comment period.

AT&T's comments are notable in light of all the attention the C-band is getting from lawmakers. Politico last week reported that a Senate aide confirmed that Sen. John Neely Kennedy, (R-Louisiana), talked on the phone with President Donald Trump to outline how he thinks the C-band should be allocated. Kennedy has been on a mission to see that the FCC run an auction rather than allow satellite companies to lead the way and reap potentially billions that otherwise could go to the U.S. Treasury.  

RELATED: C-Band Alliance taken to task in FCC oversight hearing

In its recent filing with the FCC, AT&T said the best starting point for a private auction is a proposal that it previously set forth in the proceeding, in part because that would avoid the many novel legal issues that parties have raised concerning other plans.

The C-Band Alliance (CBA) proposal for a private auction of 300 MHz of spectrum has come under fire from numerous sectors that threaten litigation that would negate any time-to-market advantage the group has promised. The CBA is comprised of three big satellite companies whose customers use the C-band for delivering content to millions of Americans.

AT&T argues that its proposal is the only private auction proposal in the record that would largely eliminate auction-related objections under Section 309(j). Its plan would be a “true secondary market” sale, involving only lawful modification of existing licenses and a direct sale of the modified existing licenses by the existing licensees.

RELATED: CCA, Charter, ACA present alternative for C-Band

The Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (PISC) is opposed to any form of private sale or privately-run auction, saying it’s both unlawful and bad policy.

Michael Calabrese, director, Wireless Future Project at Open Technology Institute/New America, which is part of the PISC, said it’s hard to tell from its filing whether AT&T is trying to throw a monkey wrench into the CBA’s proposed private auction, or whether they sincerely believe the FCC needs a completely different end-run around section 309(j).

AT&T’s proposal that the FCC should do a further notice and comment rulemaking on private auction procedures, coupled with a requirement that satellite operators must sell their modified licenses, would make any FCC order “an even more clumsily camouflaged attempt to evade the very specific requirements of the statutory auction requirements in section 309(j),” he said. 

“The most likely impact of AT&T’s ex parte is to at least temporarily derail and delay any Commission inclination to adopt the CBA proposal,” Calabrese said via email. “And if the FCC takes AT&T seriously, it really does need a substantial further notice, since this would be an entirely different direction from anything that the Commission has signaled in its NPRM, or in the two prior public notices that ignored this same proposal.”

RELATED: AT&T, Verizon join CBA in backing C-band auction principles

Verizon executives also visited with the FCC last week to talk C-band plans, including the two private auction approaches identified in the record from the CBA and AT&T.

“We identified the legal paths for each option and explained that each option is legally defensible,” Verizon said in its ex parte (PDF), adding whichever process the commission ultimately adopts could and should make use of the auction principles (PDF) agreed to by stakeholders with divergent interests.

Both AT&T and Verizon are pushing the FCC to take action fast, which is the same message CTIA Chairman and U.S. Cellular CEO Ken Meyers delivered during U.S. Cellular’s earnings call last week. "I really don’t care how we do it, I think it’s just critical to get it and get it soon,” he said.