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Spectrum bidding heats up

Broadcasters and others with ambitions to launch new types of TV services were among the most prolific bidders through 10 rounds of a government spectrum auction last week.

The bidding covers spectrum now used for chs. 54, 59 and 55, the so-called C- and D-blocks of the 700 MHz spectrum that the federal government intends to reclaim from traditional broadcasters.

Broadcasters vying for a piece of it have been quiet about their business plans.

Although wireless companies were correctly predicted to be among the biggest players in the auction, companies with television interests have been big players, too. LIN Television and business partner Banks Broadcasting were high bidders for 21 licenses, accounting for total offers of $3.3 million. Of those, nine covered licenses in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, and four were in Idaho.

Capital Broadcasting, owner of WRAL-DT Raleigh, N.C., held current top offers for 12 licenses in North Carolina.

Sinclair Broadcasting, one of the 128 parties qualified to bid, removed itself from contention long before the auction began.

Industry observers had speculated that broadcasters would want spectrum in markets where they already operate to alleviate pressure to move out as the digital transition progresses. Others, they said, may want to enter markets where crowded TV dials prevent another traditional station's launch.

"These frequencies are ideal for many conceivable uses," says Dale Hatfield, director of the University of Colorado. "This is the sweet part of the spectrum."

Cable investor Paul Allen's Vulcan Spectrum has high offers of just over $2 million each for Chicago and Seattle, as well as $44,000 for Medford, Ore.

PGTV, led by WebTV founder Philip Goldman, was the leading bidder for Pittsburgh at $880,000. He aims to launch a nationwide multichannel TV service to compete with cable and satellite.

Whether any of the high bids stands is an open question, and the auction is expected to resume next week. Among all bidders, Aloha Partners has been the leader with 26 high bids totaling $20 million. In all, 740 licenses are for sale. Ch. 55 frequencies are being consolidated into six regional permits. The other two channels are being offered as 734 licenses for two-way service in metro and rural markets.