Television station owners have more time than some probably ever imagined to decide whether to let wireless broadband providers buy airwave spectrum that they use to transmit programming. The FCC has been working on a voluntary auction for years with plans to have it take place in mid-2015. But today the agency says it will postpone the sale to early 2016 as it grapples with a lawsuit from the National Association of Broadcasters that says the plan will hurt stations that choose to keep the spectrum that they license.
“We are confident we will prevail in court,” Gary Epstein, who chairs the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force, says today in a blog post. But the schedule for the court case, issued this week, suggests that any decision is “not likely until mid-2015.” As a result, the FCC now says it will accept applications for the auction next fall. “Despite this brief delay, we remain focused on the path to successfully implementing the incentive auction,” Epstein says.
NAB denies that its “narrowly focused lawsuit is cause for delay.” The group believes that “it is more important to get the auction done right then right now… We look forward to a speedy resolution of our legal challenge and a successful auction that preserves access to free and local TV for every American.”
Supporters of the auction say that unless wireless service providers have more spectrum, the fast-growing ranks of consumers using smart phones, tablets, and other mobile devices will face dropped calls, dead zones, slow speeds, and high prices. The Obama administration is eager to free up 300 megahertz over five years, and 500 mhz over a decade. That will be hard to accomplish without help from broadcasters – the biggest users of spectrum outside of the military. Officials say stations can give up some of it and still thrive by using compression technologies and reaching audiences via cable or satellite. The FCC has also said that its auction could be a windfall for some stations because they would share some of the proceeds.
CTIA, the wireless industry’s lobby group, calls the FCC’s announcement today “unfortunate” saying that several reports “show a continued and significant increase in consumer demand for mobile broadband access…When the auction is held, mobile companies will have their checkbooks ready to participate in this critical auction that will be key to our nation’s wireless future.”