The Federal Communications Commission has given its nod to a plan that will regulate how unused television spectrum will be auctioned to wireless carriers who are desperate for it.
AT&T, Verizon Wireless and others need rights to the spectrum in order to deliver high-speed broadband and other services to the greatly increasing number of customers who use the Internet on smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices.
Here's how it works: First, the government will ask broadcasters to volunteer to sell the spectrum, which the FCC will then prepare for auction. If all goes well, enough money will be raised to develop a new network dedicated to emergency response. Expect the whole thing to be a free-for-all; AT&T and VzW's smaller competitors have asked for favored status in order to keep the industry competitive.
Don't expect the process to move quickly. It must go through a lengthy public comment process, and the FCC doesn't expect the auction to happen until 2014. Many analysts predict it will be three years before a lot of consumers notice significant differences in wireless service, the Washington Post pointed out.
There hasn't been a public-airwaves auction of this magnitude since 2008. That's when AT&T and Verizon Wireless spent almost $20 billion on spectrum that is currently being used to support their 4G networks.