The US Senate has allowed the spectrum auction authority of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to lapse for the first time ever.

A bill that would have extended the regulator’s spectrum authority to 19 May was passed by the lower house, but objections in the Senate (upper house) delayed the legislation, leading to the lapse.

US Senate
– Getty Images

For operators, it means that the agency is currently unable to auction more spectrum for 5G networks.

It follows the decision of President Joe Biden's Democratic nominee to the FCC, Gigi Sohn, to withdraw from contention to become the FCC's fifth commissioner, pulling out of the race 16 months after being nominated.

This has left the agency deadlocked with two Republicans and two Democrats, potentially contributing to the spectrum lapse.

Last Friday (March 10), Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, informed the Communication and Technology subcommittee hearing of the lapse.

"On 27 February the House passed my bipartisan legislation with Ranking Member Pallone to extend the FCC’s authority to issue spectrum licenses until 19 May," said McMorris Rodgers. "This would have given Congress enough time to come to an agreement on a more comprehensive package addressing many issues in the communications and technology space. For reasons unknown to me, certain senators decided to risk US wireless leadership over a date change."

Unsurprisingly, the FCC has given its thoughts with Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel seeking a swift resolution.

"For three decades, the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to auction the nation’s airwaves has been an indispensable tool for harnessing the promise of new wireless technologies while also spurring economic growth, creating jobs, and strengthening our national security and global leadership. Time and time again our auctions have proven to be an enormous engine for market innovation and the flourishing Internet ecosystem, and for expanding the reach of next-generation connectivity to everyone, everywhere."

Rosenworcel notes that the FCC has held 100 auctions and raised more than $233 billion in revenue.

“It is my hope that the FCC’s auction authority is restored quickly so that this important program is once again able to produce results for consumers and the economy," she added.

Since 1994, the US has conducted competitive auctions through the FCC, as opposed to assigning spectrum through comparative hearings under which the specific merits of each applicant are litigated.

This initial authority for the FCC was set to expire on September 30, 1998, but was extended by Congress, and has been several times since. The most recent long-term extension was granted as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, and expired on September 30, 2022.

However, since then, President Biden has temporarily extended the legislation an additional four times, with the latest extension signed on December 30, 2022, lasting through to March 9, 2023.

The lack of an extension could cause uncertainty within the industry as the FCC will no longer be able to auction spectrum licenses for particular bands.

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