The FCC is pushing a crucial airwave auction to 2015

December 6, 2013

The Federal Communications Commission says it will delay a long-anticipated transfer of television spectrum to wireless carriers until 2015, after it has had more time to prepare the underlying rules and technology.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced the move on the agency's blog Friday, saying he was confident about holding the auction in "the middle of 2015." The FCC had anticipated holding the sale next year, under plans established by Wheeler's predecessor, Julius Genachowski.

The spectrum auction will be among the most ambitious proceedings ever organized by the FCC. According to the basic framework, TV station operators will be offered money in exchange for relinquishing their rights to the airwaves. The affected stations will then have to decide whether to share a channel with existing operators or exit the industry entirely. Then the FCC will auction off the reclaimed spectrum to wireless carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon, who intend to use it to upgrade their cellular networks.

It's a logistically difficult process that calls for a sophisticated bidding system capable of running two interrelated auctions at once, in real time. While the technology powering that system is not likely to resemble HealthCare.gov, the Obama administration's experience with the health insurance hub may be on Wheeler's mind. In a speech at Ohio State University on Monday, Wheeler said the development process would not be rushed — a sentiment he repeated in his Friday blog post.

"As part of our auction system development," he wrote, "we will check and recheck the auction software and system components against the auction requirements, and under a variety of scenarios replicating real life conditions."

Delaying the auction also gives Wheeler more time to settle on the specific rules that will govern it. Smaller wireless carriers, such as T-Mobile and Sprint, stand to benefit the most because the sale grants them access to valuable low-frequency spectrum that travels far and penetrates walls. But public interest groups fear that unless the FCC imposes limits on how much spectrum Verizon and AT&T are allowed to buy, T-Mobile and Sprint will be put at a disadvantage.

Television stations, meanwhile, will now have longer to decide whether to participate in the auction. Several hundred stations nationwide will need to volunteer if the FCC is to reclaim its target of 120 MHz of spectrum.

 

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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