Setting the stage for the 600 MHz incentive auction

TV broadcasters must tell the FCC which specific TV channels they are interested in selling by next week, which will kick off the incentive auction of 600 MHz spectrum that will be a key focal point for the mobile industry for at least the next several months. The FCC will then reconfigure those airwaves via optimization software to make them more easily usable for carriers before announcing how much spectrum it hopes to make available to bidders. Officials hope to provide as much as 126 MHz in the incentive auction.

Often referred to as "beachfront spectrum," the airwaves at stake offer both distinct propagation characteristics for deployments over long distances and strong in-building penetration. And while the official list of bidders released last week by the FCC doesn't include any huge surprises, the 104 applicants include the three largest U.S. mobile operators -- namely Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile -- as well as Dish Network, Comcast and some other potential big spenders.

The event will consist of a reverse auction that will see the FCC agree to compile spectrum from broadcasters; that will be followed by a forward auction during which wireless service providers (and those hoping to provide them) will bid for the airwaves. But there are no guarantees that the process will go smoothly -- there's a chance the FCC may have to eventually go back to the broadcasters and start over if the forward auction doesn't generate enough revenue. And even if that doesn't happen, the FCC has the Herculean task of repacking the spectrum at issue, making it available for wireless use and moving TV broadcasters to other channels. That is expected to take more than three years, but could take much longer.

Despite all the uncertainty, though, the upcoming auction is vitally important to the major U.S. carriers, as well as to smaller regional players. Operators will continue to need spectrum as mobile data consumption continues to ramp up and as they move toward 5G. Mobile insiders, analysts and investors will all be watching very carefully as the auction unfolds and carriers prepare to deploy services on their new airwaves.

For a detailed look at the FCC's upcoming incentive auction of TV broadcasters' 600 MHz spectrum, check out this special report. --Colin