Those who have been vacationing off the planet for the last few weeks may not know that the FCC, in January, will auction off the TV channels no longer needed for broadcast after February 18, 2009, when the transition to digital TV will be complete. These frequencies are not only technically well suited to wireless communications, but will be completely empty at the time they are handed over. This happy combination may not occur again with such a large block of frequencies for decades to come.

Yesterday the FCC voted on rules for the auction and the subsequent management of the auctioned spectrum.

There had been intense lobbying for a large number of different positions on how the spectrum should be auctioned and used. Some parties advocated "maximizing the value of the spectrum," which largely entails letting auction winners impose the same kinds of restrictions on their subscribers that cell phone companies do today, or "promoting open competition" by giving end users more freedom to choose their own devices and applications. There were also competing models of how best to develop spectrum for public safety applications.

The FCC’s decision ultimately accommodated nearly all of these views, at least in part, including a public-safety/private partnership advanced by Frontline Wireless, and a block of spectrum open to any technically compatible devices and applications, as requested by Google. The biggest omission was another Google request, that part of the band be made available for resale on a wholesale basis.

The decision includes a build-out requirement for commercial licensees: cover at least 35% of the area or 40% of the population (depending on the type of license), and 70% of area or 75% of population after 10 years. A licensee that fails to meet these targets risks losing its auction investment, expected to total in the range of $10-20 billion.

The FCC’s press release, linked below, omits a great many critical details, which will become available only on publication of the Report and Order on a date yet to be announced. (I will send another email when that happens.) Also uncertain is whether Congress will step in to change the rules.

The FCC news release is available here.