Ina Fried

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Shutdown Puts Spectrum Auctions, Cellphone Approvals and Other FCC Projects in Peril

Like many government buildings in Washington, D.C., the normally bustling Federal Communications Commission headquarters has become something of a ghost town since the partial government shutdown began Oct. 1.

“It’s eerie,” said one FCC employee who is at work this week. “It’s beyond skeletal.”

Of the agency’s more than 1,700 staff members, only a few dozen are on duty. The list includes the acting chairwoman and two commissioners (their funding isn’t directly from congressional appropriations), as well as a handful of others whose duties are considered essential to life and property.

But most of the agency’s work has ground to a halt. The merger reviews, approvals of new wireless devices and managing of comments and complaints have all stopped. The agency has posted a document outlining what is and isn’t happening, and there’s far more in the second category than the first.

“So much of our work proceeds quietly, but can have real impact,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told AllThingsD. “A shutdown means a slowdown that could turn into a drag on one of the most vibrant sectors of our economy.”

Prior to the shutdown, the FCC had a full plate, preparing for the first-ever incentive spectrum auctions, the first major standard spectrum auction in years, reviewing several mergers and processing the thousands of applications from tech companies that want to introduce new wireless gear.

Companies typically get approval for such devices a bit ahead of time, but the FCC’s okay is necessary before any new wireless-equipped product can be sold. Roughly 16,000 such applications now come in annually — up 400 percent from a decade ago.

Also on the FCC’s plate: The agency’s first auction in a generation for new low-power FM airwaves. A window for applications for new low-power FM airwaves was set to open Oct. 15, paving the way for nonprofits and other local groups to operate their own hyperlocal radio stations in urban areas.

The agency is also scheduled to finally start holding new spectrum auctions next year, allowing wireless companies to bid for bandwidth badly needed for high-speed mobile services.

“There is more demand for wireless mobile spectrum, and more demand for devices that use that spectrum, than at any time in history,” Rosenworcel said.

On the merger front, the agency has pressed the stop button on its informal 180-day clock for reviewing deals.

Meanwhile, while it could probably call up staff in the event of a weather emergency, the FCC is left very short-staffed in what is often a busy hurricane season, in which it would help coordinate needed response to get communications networks back up and running after a storm.

Even when things do get resolved, the agency will have to dig out from the backlog of applications, comments, missed deadlines and other issues created by stopping cold on nearly all of its work.

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle