Spectrum Auction Elections Due March 29

Tuesday (March 29) at 6 p.m. is the official launch of the FCC broadcast spectrum auction, with billions in play for those stations who applied by Jan. 12 and have elected by that 6 p.m. cut-off to put spectrum into the auction.

The FCC has said that is a hard deadline, with no "dog ate my application" passes issued.

March 29 also marks the beginning of what will be a years-long process to reconfigure the broadcast band and insure TV stations can continue to reach their growing number of over-the-air cord-cutters and cord-nevers.

According to sources familiar with the FCC's Incentive Auction Task Force, which was understandably busy Tuesday, the mood was upbeat as the deadline for broadcaster participation approached. "Things are going well," said one FCC official.

The auction bidding by broadcasters—low bid wins, similar to bidding on government contracts—likely won't begin until mid-May, with two-to-three weeks until the FCC releases its spectrum target and another couple weeks for mock auctions, or to accommodate changes necessitated by a court ruling that allowed LPTV owner Latina Broadcasting of Daytona Beach to participate provisionally in the auction.

March 29 was the date that broadcasters have to say whether they are in or out, and at what level. UHF stations have the option of giving up spectrum or moving to a lower channel. High VHFs can move to a lower channel, and low VHFs have to give up spectrum, though in any relinquishment scenario there is the option of channel sharing and retaining must-carry rights.

A lot of question marks remain, including just who is participating on the broadcaster side—that is nonpublic—how much spectrum the FCC will recover, which depends on who is participating; and just when the auction will end and the forward auction of that spectrum begins.

Then there is the open proceeding on whether the FCC reserves a vacant channel in each market—and perhaps more—for unlicensed use.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is looking for the auction to be concluded sometime in the third quarter, but pointed out to Congress last week it all depends on the marketplace.

The congressional deadline for completing the auction and the repack is 2022.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.