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FCC notches fifth delay in spectrum auction

For the fifth time the FCC on Wednesday delayed its scheduled auction of spectrum now used for TV channels 60-69.

The delay was good news to broadcast and wireless companies that are working out compensation plans that will allow TV stations to vacate the channels before the government's 2006 deadline. The auction's latest scheduled date had been Sept. 12 but this time the agency decided to leave the date open ended rather than risk the embarrassment of another rubber date. Initially the auction was to have been May 10, 2000.

The auction has been repeatedly moved back as broadcasters and wireless companies debated spectrum clearing rules. Bud Paxson, chairman of Paxson Communications and owner of 18 of the 138 stations with allotments on the 700 MHz band, said he was "extremely excited" by the postponement and said it "bodes well" for TV owners' chances of improving their payout.

Wireless companies have been arguing for the delay as well because they have no idea what to pay the government for permanent spectrum rights until they know when they will be able to use the spectrum and how much it will cost to vacate broadcasters early.

In January the FCC upheld broadcasters' right to demand compensation for leaving the spectrum early. Now the FCC is considering a request by Paxson's Spectrum Clearing Alliance and Spectrum Exchange Group, a private company brokering deals between broadcasters and wireless companies, that stations with only one channel allotment remaining after vacating a channel early be allowed to make the switch from analog to digital at their leisure.

Right now all stations are required to begin offering digital services May 2002. Nearly all stations, however, have two channel allotments, which will allow them to continue traditional analog signals until 85% of TV homes can receive a digital signal. The added flexibility would greatly benefit stations in small towns because they are having trouble raising funds to pay for construction of DTV stations, which cost $4 million and up. - Bill McConnell