Spectum Auction (Sort of) Kicks Off

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Although March 29 has been touted for months as the official kick-off date for the Federal Communications Commission’s landmark incentive spectrum auctions, not much is actually taking place today. There will be no proverbial paddles waving in the air, no fast-talking auctioneer calling bids on 600 megahertz (MHz) band spectrum licenses, no billion-dollar up-bidding by the nation’s top wireless carriers.

So what does happen today? Basically, a filing. Broadcasters must make their initial bid commitments to participate in the reverse auction by 6 p.m.

It’s the first step in a months-long process to determine the market value of what some have touted as primo, “beachfront” spectrum real estate currently in hands of TV broadcasters. Wireless companies and others, including Comcast Corp. and Dish Network Corp., will get a chance to bid on spectrum reclaimed from participating broadcasters.

“The Incentive Auction promises to free up more capacity to meet Americans’ skyrocketing demand for wireless data while preserving the valuable service that broadcast TV stations provide to their communities,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a March 29 blog post.

From these filings, several equally important—and more visible—mile markers will appear in short order. The first will be the April 6 deadline for forward auction participants to complete their applications to participate in their part of the auction.  

Toward the end of April—or about three to four weeks from now, according Wheeler—the FCC will issue the spectrum clearing target, which could be as high as 126 MHz, though likely less than that. Wireless carriers and other forward auction participants will be able to base their bidding strategies on that figure, in addition to other factors, such as regions where they lack the sort of carriage capacity spectrum the 600 MHz block provides.

Reverse auction bidding is expected to start in May. How long the rest of the auction lasts after that “is a function of the marketplace,” Wheeler told lawmakers at a March 22 House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing. FCC officials have previously estimated the auction will likely wrap up in time for football season.  

And while today is about looking forward, it’s also a day for looking back. Four years ago, when the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 was enacted, Congress was taking a risk that a portion of that legislation, the Spectrum Act, would be successful, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) recently told Bloomberg Government. “There are going to be plenty of members of Congress that are going to be self-congratulatory if it works out really well,” said Eshoo, ranking member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee.

And ultimately, consumers and the industries that depend on mobile broadband technology should also benefit from the auctions, though proof of concept of this first-of-its-kind incentive auction will likely be many more years, and mile markers, down the road.