FCC’s Clyburn Keeps FCC Wheels Turning

First meeting included cell phone privacy rule and progress report on spectrum auction

Federal Communications Commission chair Mignon Clyburn showed during the agency's monthly meeting today that she isn't just going to be a bench-warmer for nominee Tom Wheeler.

With Wheeler's Senate confirmation perhaps weeks—if not months—away, Clyburn presided over a full agenda in her first meeting, which included an update on the FCC's progress in holding the all-important auction of wireless spectrum.

Clyburn, the agency's first chairwoman in its 79-year history, was elevated to her role just six weeks ago. Visibly excited and always collegial, Clyburn opened the meeting by thanking the FCC staff and her father, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who showed his support by attending Clyburn's first meeting.

All three of the items voted on by the three-member commission were unanimous, including a declaratory ruling that extends the FCC's privacy rules for telephone carriers to wireless carriers. The rule requires carriers to safeguard customer's cell phone calls, including phone numbers, duration of call, and location of call. (The rule does not apply to non-carriers, third-party applications or Internet activity.) 

"Consumer privacy protection is a key component of the commission's mission to serve the public interest," Clyburn said.

No item is higher on the FCC's to-do list than freeing up more spectrum to feed the voracious mobile market. In addition to voting on new rules to auction off in early 2014 a block of spectrum (known as the H block) that's been sitting around for years, Clyburn also directed the agency to give the first of what will be several progress reports on the details for holding the incentive auction of spectrum voluntarily relinquished by broadcasters.

With the commission operating with only three commissioners until Wheeler and a GOP commissioner are confirmed, there has been a lot of speculation that the FCC will be restricted from moving as fast as it could on important initiatives like the spectrum auction.

Hedging the agency's bets, Clyburn said the incentive auction is on track to be held in 2014. Although that's a little later than the 2013 deadline former FCC chair Julius Genachowski had set, Clyburn said she was pleased that the commission was making steady progress on several fronts.

In the coming weeks, the commission plans to release more information about how it will rearrange the spectrum band following the auction, a critical detail long awaited by broadcasters who are worried about how the auction may change their business. Clyburn also plans to meet with the telecom officials of Mexico next week and Canada next month, to work out how the auction might impact TV stations located near border markets like Detroit. Finally, because TV broadcast participation is critical to the auction's success, the FCC plans to step up its outreach to broadcasters to encourage them to share their spectrum with other TV stations.