By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON (StartName) – This year’s top U.S. wireless convention descends on Las Vegas on Monday and will no doubt be abuzz with massive telecom mergers and major policy undertakings of the industry’s new top regulator.
But the less glamorous, though no less monumental, subject of spectrum, or radio airwaves, will serve as a backdrop to every conversation at the “Super Mobility Week” trade show thrown by the wireless industry association CTIA.
For years, U.S. cellphone carriers, device and microchip makers and others have urged the federal government to help turn more airwaves into spectrum that would support the spiraling number of smartphones, tablets and other Internet-connected devices.
In a speech on Tuesday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is likely to acknowledge those pleas in a discussion expected to focus on wireless market competition, including the importance of upcoming spectrum auctions.
“All eyes and all ears will be on Chairman Wheeler as he concretely addresses where we’re going next on the critical auctions … and also where the government is making advances in the broader spectrum issues,” said Jonathan Spalter, chair of Mobile Future, a coalition with a focus on industry spectrum needs.
President Barack Obama last year called on federal agencies to share more of their airwaves with companies, a process that has been slow to start particularly due to the military’s security concerns.
Initial applications are due this week for the FCC’s auction of frequencies known as AWS-3, which will include airwaves previously occupied by multiple federal users including the Department of Homeland Security.
Scheduled for Nov. 13, the AWS-3 auction is expected to raise at least $10 billion and attract bidders such as satellite operator Dish Network Corp and the largest wireless carriers, Verizon Communications Inc and AT&T Inc.
The FCC is also gearing up for next year’s so-called incentive auction, the first opportunity since 2008 for wireless carriers to buy low-frequency airwaves, considered the “beachfront property” of radio spectrum for their reach and strength.
The auction is regarded as the FCC’s most complex undertaking to date, balancing numerous economic, engineering and political considerations, including the need to woo broadcasters to give up those airwaves in the first place.
The FCC is asking television stations to bid to sell spectrum, possibly by going off air or sharing airwaves with each other, so Internet companies can bid for them.
The National Association of Broadcasters last month petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to review elements of the FCC’s planned auction process, arguing it could hurt TV stations.
Some experts worry the court challenge could delay the auction, which has already been pushed back from this year to mid-2015. The NAB, however, said that was not its goal.
The court on Friday granted the NAB’s motion for expedited review of the case, setting the deadline for final briefs on Dec. 18.
(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Ros Krasny and David Gregorio)