700 MHz auctions, take 6

It looks like the five-times delayed auction of the 700 MHz spectrum could be going for an even half-dozen.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee nearly unanimously agrees that the FCC should delay the auction indefinitely—it is currently scheduled for June—and, last week, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and ranking member John Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced legislation to that effect, although Tauzin still thinks the FCC can do it without a new law.

"The FCC currently has the authority to delay these auctions and should do so," Tauzin said.

The analog spectrum in question must be returned by 2006, but auction winners are authorized to negotiate early buyouts with broadcasters who agree to give up their analog spectrum early. The lead broadcaster in the effort to speed the auctions has been Paxson Communications chief Bud Paxson.

Tauzin and Dingell were joined by 50 of the committee's 57 members, including House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and that subcommittee's ranking member, Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

The legislation has no Senate sponsor yet, and Tauzin himself doesn't expect to pass a bill in time to delay the auctions. But the big stick may just do the trick.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell has said the statute requires the FCC to proceed unless Congress rewrites the law, but observers expect that pressure from Tauzin and his committee, as well as pressure from the Bush administration, will induce the FCC to step back.

The bill leaves in place the 2006 deadline for returning the spectrum.

Andrew Levin, minority counsel to the House Commerce Committee, told a conference in Washington last week that the "way Congress determined that deadline was asinine, made no sense and results in a gross mismanagement of spectrum."

Still, the "2006 deadline is the framework under which we all have to work," said Jessica Wallace, majority counsel to the committee.

According to law, broadcasters must convert to digital and give back the analog spectrum by 2006, but only if 85% of households have access to digital television. "And 15% of the population translates into a lot of votes," Wallace said.

Even though the transition to digital seems slow and nearly 900 broadcasters have asked for at least an extra six months to build out, the Consumer Electronics Association says business is booming in the digital TV marketplace.

In the first quarter, the trade group reports, consumers purchased nearly $767 million in integrated digital TV sets and displays alone, a 66% increase over the same period in 2001. The group predicts that 2.1 million DTV products will be sold in 2002, 4 million in 2003, 5.4 million in 2004, 8 million in 2005 and 10.5 million in 2006.

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.