US broadcast regulator the FCC says its incentive spectrum auction for vacated broadcast spectrum will start on 29 March, even though a court ruling green-lighting an additional participant has only just happened.
A federal court has just ruled that a low-power TV station (LPTV), owned by Latina Broadcasters of Daytona Beach, will be allowed to participate in the auction, and the FCC has said it would comply with the order.
In a change of strategy, the FCC has also said it’s not planning to push back its timelines to accommodate a judicial review that could reverse that order. The review is scheduled to start with oral arguments in September. It had originally warned that including Latina would cause delays. And another case is waiting in the wings.
The FCC initially told Latina it was eligible, then on 12 February, well after Latina had applied and a month after the deadline for applicants, it said that had been a mistake. Latina, which owns Azteca America affiliate WDYB, protested, and the judge sided with the broadcaster.
"In response to last night’s ruling by the D.C. Circuit, we will permit Latina Broadcasters to participate provisionally in the Incentive Auction, subject to the outcome of judicial review," the FCC said. "The auction will commence on 29 March, as scheduled.”
In a two-page order, the court said the FCC "has to permit Latina to participate provisionally in the upcoming broadcast spectrum incentive auction, subject to the outcome of judicial review."
The commission is gearing up for an incentive auction of unused analogue TV spectrum, left over from the digital TV transition. The hope is to free up more spectrum for 4G and advanced wireless services, like mobile video, while the FCC is set to implement a spectrum incentive auction framework. Thus, it will be a two-sided auction for the spectrum in an effort to pay broadcasters a fair value for their assets before selling them to the highest-bidding mobile carriers.
However, those broadcasters choosing not to participate will have their spectrum 'repacked' into other bands to protect their signals from neighbouring interference and ensure uninterrupted TV service. The FCC last autumn proposed setting aside up to two UHF channels in every US TV market for Wi-Fi and other unlicensed wireless services. This so-called ‘vacant channel’ effort takes valuable real estate away from LPTVs looking to find new homes after the agency’s repacking this year, broadcasters have argued. Some have chosen to circumvent the issue by participating in the auction, but the FCC hasn’t been supportive of the effort.
The court said it had reviewed the FCC's broadcast incentive auction website and "it appears the agency's auction data files and other projections are based on the assumption that the petitioner's station would be eligible to participate." So, Latina’s participation should not delay the auction, it concluded.
Meanwhile, Videohouse, another LPTV, has requested a stay of the auction start date so that its eligibility could be considered. The court has not yet ruled in that request.
The FCC said that “while the court expressed its expectation that allowing Latina to participate will not cause the auction to be delayed, granting Videohouse’s request for a stay or provisional participation will cause substantial delay and resulting harm to the public.”
The 29 March date is the deadline for firms to commit to participating in the auction and deciding whether the broadcaster will be giving up spectrum or moving to a lower channel. Actual bidding is not expected until May.