FCC gives in, delays auction of airwaves

Commission waits on channels 60-69, continues with 52-59

WASHINGTON — Responding to Capitol Hill pressure, the Federal Communications Commission on Friday postponed until next year the much-debated June 19 auction of airwaves used by television channels 60-69, dashing the hopes of broadcasters who planned on clearing the spectrum early in exchange for a bonus buyout.

Lawmakers grew irate after broadcaster Lowell “Bud” Paxson, who operates numerous stations on this part of the band, came up with the controversial plan to ask wireless companies purchasing the spectrum for the early buyout. Solons pointed out that airwaves are owned by the public, not the broadcasters, and that it wasn’t right for broadcasters to profit from the auction.

The FCC only delayed the auction of spectrum occupied by channels 60-69; it refused to delay the coinciding June 19 auction of that part of the band used by channels 52-59. It is unlikely, though, that the FCC will get its minimum asking price for these airwaves, since they are occupied by larger TV stations far from ready to get off.

The auctioning of analog spectrum is at the foundation of the troubled transition to digital TV; plan is for TV stations to return the band to Washington as they begin to transmit their signals digitally.

FCC chair Michael Powell said it was only with reluctance that he was postponing the auction until Jan. 14, but that he couldn’t ignore the furious debate on Capitol Hill. In recent days, the House of Representatives approved emergency legislation postponing the auction, with the Senate threatening similar action.

“Proceeding under this additional cloud of uncertainty could affect financing decisions and bidding behavior, thereby compromising the integrity of the auction,” Powell said. “But I also note that just because the Commission delayed this particular auction before, it cannot stand for the proposition that it can delay whenever and for as long as it wishes. That would make a mockery of the laws enacted by Congress and set a troubling precedent for an administrative agency.”

FCC commissioner Kevin Martin, who has close ties to the White House, said he disagreed with Powell’s decision to go ahead even with the auctioning of spectrum used by channels 52-59.

“I believe the public interest would best be served by delaying both auctions to allow the Commission time to develop a more comprehensive approach to these spectrum issues,” Martin said in his dissenting statement.

The White House, as well as key lawmakers such as Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), believe it is premature to hold any auction, considering that the digital transition is still years away. They say wireless companies and others eyeing the spectrum won’t want to pay now for bandwidth they won’t get their hands for some time to come.