March 24, 1998
|Re:||Amendment of the Commission's Rules Regarding Installment Payment Financing for C block Personal Communications Service (PCS) Licensees, WT Docket No. 97-82|
I concur in today's decision to the extent it affirms the Commission's decision of September 25, 1997, and dissent to the extent it does not. I am pleased that the majority has generally adhered to the framework established last fall. But I do not support the revised package of options being afforded to C block licensees, which I believe is an excessive and potentially counterproductive government intervention in the marketplace. In addition, I am troubled by the majority's willingness to indefinitely delay reauction of returned licenses.
My disagreements with the majority are real, and they are substantial, but they are also respectful. As with many of the judgments the Commissioners are called upon to make, reasonable people can disagree. So here.
Although I supported the Commission's prior decision, I have welcomed the opportunity to think anew on these issues. Reconsideration presents an opportunity -- and a duty -- to consider the matter with a fresh eye. I have used the reconsideration process to test the facts and logic undergirding the Commission's prior decision, to seek additional information and ideas, and to deliberate with a new group of colleagues who bring diverse backgrounds and fresh insights to the process.
And yet this process has left unshaken the core convictions that were central to my thinking last September. Spectrum auctions cannot achieve their full promise as a method of assigning rights to use the public airwaves if, after the fact, government interposes itself into the marketplace to alter market outcomes and favor one group of competitors over another group of competitors.
It remains my view that the C block auction, like the other spectrum auctions the Commission has administered, was run fairly. At the time of the auction, the playing field was level. Everyone believed they were playing by the same rules. Each bidder was on notice to take our rules into consideration when they bid, including the installment terms. Every bid, by every bidder, was entirely voluntary.
As prices rose, some bidders dropped out, believing that others were misjudging the market, and banked on the opportunity to obtain licenses in the event of defaults, license cancellation, and reauction -- the way the FCC said it would work. Others, judging the market potential differently, stayed in. The FCC owes an equal duty to all of these bidders. In my view, today's decision breaches that duty.
In September, we departed in a limited fashion from strict adherence to market mechanisms, and the majority has now moved further down the slippery slope. In the wake of today's decision, we can reasonably anticipate that these licensees, or those in other spectrum blocks, will seek other accommodations on future occasions. This is the inevitable result when government too readily intervenes to protect market participants from failure.
The real damage here is to our role as steward of the public airwaves. Our responsibilities are to facilitate use of the spectrum to bring competitive services to the public, to be fair to all parties (licensees and disappointed bidders alike), and to rely on marketplace forces rather than government edict to select winners and losers. Having placed spectrum in an auction with fair rules known to all parties, we should not intrude on the marketplace after the auction for the purpose of assisting some parties to remain licensees. The marketplace is far better suited than we are to determine the capabilities of licensees, and to provide support for those business plans that make economic sense.
Moreover, financial markets need regulatory certainty and predictability of outcomes. Otherwise the regulatory risk is too great to warrant investment. Wall Street needs the
C block licensees to get on with business. Our September decision met with some applause, in part because it contributed certainty to the marketplace and allowed participants, equipment manufacturers, and suppliers of venture capital to proceed. The measures the majority takes today regretfully foster more uncertainty and unpredictability.
Although the majority has maintained the basic framework of the decision rendered last September, there are fundamental differences between what the Commission did then and what it is doing now. The new approach will entail greater governmental intrusion in the marketplace, more disruption of business plans, and more delays in C block construction and operation.
The options afforded last September were painstakingly tailored to maintain consistency with auction results and to speed the resumption of normal operation of the market. These options were designed to enable some licensees to exit their predicaments; others to regroup; and still others to refocus their energies on executing their business plan. Given the growing competition in the wireless marketplace, I believed it to be important to enable those C block licensees which were able to do so to "get back to business" as soon as possible. For that reason, one virtue of the options set forth in our September decision was that they were designed to give a modest hand to those most in need, not to create incentives for those licensees capable of proceeding under their original agreements to abandon their business plans.
As noted above, the majority is retaining the basic framework of September's decision, but changing it in significant ways. Today's decision: (1) increases the ability of licensees to credit deposits that otherwise would be forfeit; (2) allows some deposits to be applied against suspension interest; (3) permits licensees to choose among the options on an MTA-by-MTA basis; (4) extends the time when licensees need to either resume their payments or face cancellation of their licenses; and (5) indefinitely postpones the reauction. Taken in combination, the new array of options is complex, confusing, and overly intrusive in the marketplace.
The decision today takes what had been a menu of measured options and turns it into a smorgasbord of hearty choices. The enriched menu of options adopted today may compel all C block licensees to stop and reassess their business plans. Each will now feel obligated to consider whether changing its plans would be more advantageous than proceeding in accordance with the original auction outcome; and many will do so. It is ill-advised and unnecessary to offer new terms that will alter the plans of licensees who were otherwise prepared to proceed. This has extended the delay in settling the C block, and adds to the uncertainty in the financial markets. And most important, we are interfering with market correction mechanisms that would ensure that C block licenses are held by entrepreneurs financially able to provide service to the public.
Use of Down Payments
Of the changes to the plan adopted last September, I am most troubled by those pertaining to the disaggregation option. Previously, those choosing disaggregation were required to forfeit the down payments associated with the portion of the spectrum that was being returned; now, they may use a portion of these funds.(1) But these funds do not belong to a licensee that cannot meet its commitments -- any more than do those paid for an option to buy land that has lapsed or a downpayment on a car that has been repossessed. Yet the majority allows these funds to be used to pay down principal on the licenses that are kept or, worse, to pay suspension interest.
Using deposits that would otherwise be forfeited to pay suspension interest essentially postpones the time when the licensee's financial ability to construct and operate a service is put to the test. It also is not fair to the licensees who met their obligations and who must raise the money to cover suspension interest payments.
Delays in Resumption of Payments and Reauction
I am also troubled by yet another extensive delay before the date by which licensees will need to resume payments on their licenses. Until such payments are made, the market will not know which licensees are financially viable. The payments already have been suspended for one year. Now, additional time is needed for licensees to sort out their expanded options. At the same time, the grace period for delayed payments is being extended. So we prolong the time during which the licenses will be tied up, with no assurance that the licensees will ultimately be able to finance and construct their systems and provide service to the public.
In addition, I am concerned by the further delay in the timing of the reauction of forfeited licenses. A reauction is needed to put licenses in the hands of those capable of putting them to productive use. It will also create long-awaited opportunities for those designated entities that, in the prior auction, consciously and responsibly chose not to bid more than they could pay. And yet, in today's order, the majority indefinitely postpones the reauction. Last year, we said it would occur in the third quarter of 1998. Just two months ago, the new Commission committed to a date of September 29, 1998. Now, the reauction is deferred until further notice.
Still more delay is inherent in the Commission's inaction on rules for the C block reauction. These rules were proposed in the same September order that here is under reconsideration and for which the comment period has ended. Yet even though decisions on some issues in that proceeding could affect the elections from among the newly expanded options, the majority has declined to settle those issues today.
The agency is caught between conflicting concerns. Everyone agrees, at least as a general principle, that it is vital to maintain the integrity of the auction process. Yet we naturally are drawn to help C block licensees who are facing hardship. Behind the corporate names printed on the licenses and the petitions for relief stand real people -- small business owners, entrepreneurs, individual investors, and others, many of them women and minorities -- facing real problems. I -- like my colleagues -- am drawn to help them.
But it is impossible to fully reconcile a commitment to fair market-driven spectrum assignments with a willingness to change the rules of the game after it has been played. At some point, one objective must prevail over the other. In my judgment, where the objectives collide, the integrity of the process must control, and the desire to help individual players must yield.
If we really believe in assigning spectrum by auctions as authorized by Congress in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, and the "procompetitive, deregulatory" paradigm of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, we must accept the reality that some licensees will fail in the marketplace, and that their conditional licenses will need to be canceled and reauctioned, as our rules envisioned. Such outcomes are painful, but necessary, if the marketplace is to work its magic.
My disagreement with the majority concerns the lengths to which the Commission should go in trying to prevent such outcomes.
Judges and legislators, lawyers and economists -- all speak to the need to promote and protect competition, not competitors. In my opinion, today's decision crosses the line to favor specific competitors over others. I cannot support that result.
Some parties have suggested that the Commission owes a duty to go to extra lengths because the C block licensees are all small business "designated entities." This argument misses the point that, with or without post hoc relief, the C block spectrum will remain exclusively for designated entities. What is at issue is a clash not between the interests of small entities and those of large conglomerates. Rather, the issue is whether the FCC should favor one group of designated entities over another. I do not believe it should.
The Commission's Role
The Commission's intervention in the post-auction market is neither compelled nor excused by the ongoing financial obligation of the C block licensees to the U.S. Treasury. The Commission's fundamental role is that of a licensing agency, not that of a lender. Although the agency's C block rules enabled designated entities to purchase spectrum rights with installment payments, as Congress specifically contemplated (47 U.S.C. §309(j)(4)(A)), our responsibility after the auction was to issue licenses, which were expressly conditioned upon the licensees' fulfillment of their financial commitments.
Those who say the Commission functioned as a banker are mistaken. We never performed the banker's role (which I know well) of reviewing the bidders' balance sheets, their business plans, the wisdom of their planned bids, and the quality of their management. We never assumed the responsibility of creating "commercially reasonable alternatives" for whatever difficulties the C block licenses encountered. To the contrary, we repeatedly declared our commitment to the efficacy of the market mechanism, and our intention to enforce auction rules.(2)
Today's decision may enable the survival of some C block licensees who might have failed without government intervention. More likely is the prospect that the significantly sweetened selection of options will lead directly to more churn in business plans, more deviation from initial auction results, more confusion in the financial markets, and more delay in construction of facilities. A further cost is the long-term skepticism in the market that the Commission will revise its rules whenever the pressure is great enough.
It is my view that these rule changes prolong uncertainty, and fail to treat all interested parties equitably. Accordingly, to the extent the majority goes beyond the terms of last September's order, I respectfully dissent.
1. The prior decision allowed licensees to redeploy a portion of their down payments only in one limited circumstance -- prepayment. The key considerations that made this approach acceptable to me were that: (1) such licensees were paying the full bid amount on the licenses they retained; and (2) election of this option removed the government entirely from installment payments -- some licenses were fully purchased, and the remaining licenses were returned to the FCC for reauction. The result was that the electing licensee was relieved of suspension interest and all debt owed, in return for purchasing or returning all licenses. The same benefits do not accrue in the disaggregation context, where the licensee continues to receive below-market interest rates and the government continues to administer installment debt.
2. I note that the Commission acted without hesitation when some successful C block bidders failed to make their down payments although they had made their deposits. The FCC immediately defaulted the bidders and assessed maximum forfeitures, applying all payments to the forfeitures. See "18 Defaulted PCS licenses to be Reauctioned; Reauction to Begin July 3rd," Public Notice, DA 96-872 (rel. May 30, 1996); Mountain Solutions LTD, Inc., Order, 12 FCC Rcd 5904 (WTB 1997), application for review pending; BDPCS, Inc., Order, 12 FCC Rcd 6606 (WTB 1997), application for review pending; C.H. PCS Inc., Order, 11 FCC Rcd 22430 (WTB 1996). These bidders, and those who dropped out in the course of the auction, had no reason to expect that the Commission would subsequently change the rules of the game. It is of course impossible to sort out how these bidders would have behaved differently if they could have foreseen the accommodations that would later be offered.