Guess what? An auction postponed

Washington's unending spectrum story continues

Facing pressure from Congress and the White House, the FCC this week is expected to delay yet again an auction for spectrum now used for TV ch. 52-69.

Still being debated last week was whether the commission would postpone the June 19 bidding for a brief time, perhaps a month, or indefinitely. Also under discussion is the possibility of allowing the June auction to go forward in Alaska, where few stations are parked on the channels and there is pressing need for new wireless services in the largely rural and sparsely populated state.

Late last week, the other three commissioners were waiting for FCC Chairman Michael Powell to float a proposal that would placate the competing interests on Capitol Hill, and they had no clear indication of where he was leaning.

Complicating matters is that more than 150 applications to participate in the bidding are said to have been submitted by a May 8 deadline. Although FCC officials would not confirm the number and said a list of eligible applicants will be released within two weeks, a staffer for Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) pegged the number at 144 looking to bid on spectrum in the lower part of the 700 MHz spectrum band (ch. 52-59) and 20-plus seeking spectrum in the higher band (ch. 60-69).

The wireless industry has been arguing for a delay on the grounds that, if held June 19, the auction would attract few bidders because the date for clearing the spectrum is uncertain.

A group of owners with stations on ch. 60-69, led by Paxson Communications, is eager for the bidding to begin because the FCC is permitting them to negotiate early-buyout deals that could be worth billions.

Publicly, the FCC has been reluctant to delay bidding—for 60-69 particularly, which has been postponed five times. Powell and other commissioners have pointed out that the FCC is legally obligated to collect proceeds from the auction by September.

But Congress and the White House have given the FCC all the cover it needs for another delay. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill to postpone the auctions, perhaps until Sept. 30, 2007.