On July 25, the U.S. House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on the Oversight and Reauthorization of the Federal Communications Commission. During one exchange, Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY) asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai about the Commission’s process for authorizing spectrum licenses to small and rural businesses now that the the broadcast incentive auction is complete. Clarke, a champion for creating conditions of increased competition from which small businesses and consumers can benefit, expressed concern that smaller bidders were not receiving due time and attention from the Commission.
Clarke noted that of the 24 remaining spectrum licenses that have yet to be placed on public notice, 13 seek bidding credits as small businesses, and 10 seek bidding credits as rural service providers. Since the Commission announced its intention to pay out proceeds of the reverse auction, “I believe that the FCC should now move to be ready to process the remaining license applications, many of which are for small business,” Clarke said. “Can you tell me what the timeline is for putting the remaining applications on public notice, and how are you prioritizing these applications to ensure that there’s timely deployment of this valuable spectrum?”
Chairman Pai, who’s long expressed his interest in creating new opportunities for digital equity and inclusion, particularly for members of rural America and historically underrepresented and disadvantaged populations said, “we are moving as quickly as we can…with respect to designated entities, there are particular procedures the FCC is required to follow in addition to the procedures that we have to follow for those wining bidders to ensure that those winning bidders are, in fact, entitled to bidding credits under our rules and the applicable law.”
Ensuring that small, minority and women owned, and rural bidders get a chance to purchase spectrum is critical to deploying wireless infrastructure to underserved areas. It is also a sure-fire way to increase opportunities for non-traditional equity and ownership in the burgeoning telecom market, an outcome which will benefits consumers and likely lead to increased economic development opportunities for entire communities.
Hastening the allocation of spectrum to designated entities is an area ripe for bi-partisan cooperation, and a place where interests on all sides could align. Similarly, if the goal is to create new ownership opportunities in the wireless market, reintroducing tax certificate legislation – akin to the type that once facilitated a mass increase in minority broadcast ownership – is another area that enjoys bi-partisan support. Former Republican FCC Chairman Dick Wiley, as well as esteemed members of Congress like G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) and Bobby Rush (D-IL) have been long-time proponents of a resurgence of the tax certificate program.
“It’d be great to flip the script and make [the little guys] priority,” said Clarke, “it’s the little guy we’re trying to elevate.”