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Editorial: Auction’s Soft Landing

FCC chief Tom Wheeler and the other commissioners were on the House hot seat last week, peppered with questions by Communications Subcommittee members on a boatload of topics, from net neutrality to over-the-top video.

But the answers that may be most important to broadcasters, and that we’re going to hold all five commissioners to, concerned the incentive auction.

Broadcasters have argued the FCC’s hard deadline of 39 months for them to relocate to new channels after the 2016 incentive auction may not be enough time to make this once-in-a-business-lifetime sea change, particularly given that there could be 1,000-plus stations required to relocate, with the attendant need for consultants, tower crews, engineers—and, of course, lawyers.

At least one legislator who shared that concern (there were several) asked Wheeler and company point-blank whether, if 39 months proved to be not enough time, they would force broadcasters off the air to meet the deadline.

Yes, it was “only” a Hill hearing, where finessing answers is an art form. Wheeler has a Renoir-like ability of answering only the question asked, in a way that sometimes leaves the impression there may be some future wiggles. Wheeler did point out that wireless companies need to know when they can have the spectrum, or the value is diminished. And it’s true that, as the National Association of Broadcasters was quick to point out, the FCC rules allowing for a six-month extension are for building out new facilities, not remaining up and running on their previous channel.

But when pressed, Wheeler, joined by the other four commissioners, said they would not force broadcasters off the air. We intend to hold them to their word, though we would prefer it in writing since none of them may still be at the FCC when that crunch time comes.

Wheeler pledged to be flexible, which is the only way to approach that deadline. He said the 39 months was not going to be a “drop off the table” deadline.

The FCC has never tried a two-sided auction like this one, and it has already pushed back deadlines for applications due to initial miscalculations. And we applaud the commission for recognizing that it needed to give broadcasters and wireless companies more time.