Wheeler: Full Speed Ahead on Auction

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has confirmed that the commission is definitely on track to start the spectrum auction March 29, and should be able to begin the reverse auction bidding in May as initially planned, although he did not specify exactly when in May.

March 29 is D-Day—as in “Decision”—for broadcasters that have applied to the auction; they must now decide whether and how to give up spectrum.

Wheeler told a House Communications Subcommittee FCC oversight hearing last week that a recent court decision would not delay the start of the proceedings. Needless to say, he had plenty of interested listeners.

There had been concern from some industry quarters that any delay in the auction would leave participating stations in limbo, given the limits on communications about their business plans until after the auction is completed. Wheeler signaled there was nothing to worry about on that score.

The chairman himself raised the auction topic, saying in his opening remarks that the FCC was about to drop the green flag, and volunteering his view of the impact of the federal court’s decision two weeks ago that the commission must allow Latina Broadcasters of Daytona Beach, Fla., into the auction, at least provisionally. The court decision stated that the addition would not delay the auction start; the FCC had seemed to signal in earlier court filings that it would.

Wheeler said last week the plan had always been to take three or four weeks after the March 29 date to figure out a clearing target based on those elections, and release it before bidding begins.

“The late-hour inclusion of Latina will require us to update our data files,” he said, “and ensure the auction system is properly functioning with the updated data prior to issuing the initial clearing targets.” Depending on how many stations are interested, and where, that could be anywhere from the 60-70 MHz range to 128 MHz.

Wheeler says commission staffers are still working through the effects of Latina—in asking the court to deny the stay it granted, the FCC had signaled it could delay the auction several weeks. But Wheeler said the FCC had also always planned for reverse auction bidding to begin in May, “and we still expect that will happen.”

Such efforts could mean a push from early to later in May, and account for the few weeks the FCC told the court might be added.

Wheeler said that if he had to guess, the auction actions—both forward and reverse—could be finished by August or September, with everything depending on the marketplace. Each auction could take several weeks if past is prologue—although the commission has never conducted this kind of two-sided incentive auction before.


An initial combing of the FCC list of applicants in the forward portion of the upcoming broadcast spectrum auction—which officially launches this week—indicates it is clearly not just for wireless companies and venture capitalists. Companies with cable and broadcast interests are on that side of the equation as well.

The list is only of applicants, not necessarily those that will bid or win spectrum if they do. But no one absent from that tally will have a chance to participate. Comcast had already signaled it was going to do so, but it was joined by several others with cable network or programming interests.

Rocco Commisso of Mediacom is an applicant, under Rolling Hills Entertainment; John Malone’s Liberty Media is there too, though a Liberty spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal they would not be bidding.

Sinclair, which recently bought Tennis Channel and owns regional cable news network NewsChannel 8 in Washington, is also on the list.

Given Comcast’s NBCU TV station holdings, including some duopolies, and the TV station holdings of Sinclair—the largest TV station group in the country—also including some duopolies, those two could potentially be applicants in both sides of the auction.

The FCC, per statute, is not releasing the names of TV station owners that have applied to potentially give up spectrum. But Sinclair, for one, has long said it could put some spectrum in and, if so, might realize a couple billion dollars in proceeds if it won.

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.