FCC to issue report on 600 MHz incentive auction structure in the spring

The FCC plans to issue a report and order on the planned structure of the incentive auctions of 600 MHz broadcast TV spectrum sometime this spring, and then start accepting bids from TV stations for the reverse part of the auction in early 2015.

The timeline was given Thursday at the FCC's open meeting by Gary Epstein, chief of the commission's Incentive Auction Task Force. The agency's planned auction report will provide a framework a spectrum "band plan" and TV station repacking, and will address issues such as bidding rules, auction structure and the geographic size of license areas, which has been a point of contention among wireless carriers. Probably the largest issue that needs to be decided, for wireless carriers at least, is if or how any restrictions might be placed on Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Mobility, as smaller carrier and public interest groups have urged.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler stressed that the report would be open for comment and further changes, according to Broadcasting and Cable.

Wheeler decided in December to push the start of the auction back to mid-2015. Under the FCC's proposed rules, broadcasters will submit bids to relinquish their 6 MHz pieces of spectrum in a reverse auction where the FCC will pay them. (The FCC's band plan for the broadcast spectrum carriers would use calls for 5 MHz blocks.) The process is voluntary for broadcasters, but many worry that broadcasters might not give up their spectrum based to their previous resistance to the auctions and uncertainty over how much money they will ultimately receive.

The CTIA is partnering with two Los Angeles TV stations to launch a pilot project to show that the stations can share the same broadcast spectrum. The pilot is part of effort to gin up support among broadcasters to participate in the auction. At the meeting, Wheeler said he was anxious to see the results of the test, which the FCC must approve; that seems like a foregone conclusion and Epstein said the FCC would act on the request soon.

After broadcasters give up their spectrum, it will be "repacked" so that broadcasters that do not give up their spectrum can stay on the air. Then the FCC will conduct a traditional "forward" auction in which wireless carriers will bid for the freed spectrum. There is an ongoing debate over what the band plan should be for the spectrum once broadcasters are repacked.

Once the report is issued, the FCC is going to engage in more intensified outreach and education with broadcasters, according to Epstein. According to Broadcasting and Cable, in their statements, Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Ajit Pai emphasized the importance of outreach. "We do not want to hold a party and have no one show up," Rosenworcel said. "So our outreach to broadcasters must be more than broad--it must be targeted. One-to-many efforts are not enough. One-to-one outreach is essential."

Pai was emphatic. "If there is not sufficient broadcaster participation in the reverse auction, the incentive auction will fail," he said. "It is as simple as that."

Epstein said the FCC will only launch the auction once its computer systems have been thoroughly tested to approximate real-world conditions and that the systems are "technically-ready and user-friendly." The FCC is under pressure to get the technology right after last fall's bungled rollout of the HealthCare.gov website for President Obama's healthcare reform law.

For more:
- see this FCC presentation (PDF)
- see this Broadcasting & Cable article
- see this TV Technology article 
- see this CTIA post

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