'Spectrum extravaganza': Auction gets underway

A major federal wireless spectrum auction got underway on Tuesday.

Broadcasters have until 6:00 p.m. to commit to some level of participation in the auction. The process allows them to sell their spectrum to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who will then resell it to new buyers.

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A commitment does not guarantee that a company will ever sell its spectrum, however. The process resembles a Dutch auction, in which sellers are knocked out over time.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler tweeted triumphantly about the beginning of the long-awaited auction on Tuesday, cheering the team that developed the process.

This is the first time the FCC is allowing broadcasters to essentially sell their spectrum through an auction. If all goes as planned, broadcasters will be compensated for going off the air or moving channels. The wireless industry and other buyers, meanwhile, will get access to high-quality spectrum that is crucial to the delivery of the mobile data on smartphones.

Wheeler has said he expects the auction to be "a spectrum extravaganza."

It remains unknown how many broadcasters applied to participate in the auction. Wheeler has resisted calls so far for the commission to release anonymized data on interested parties in the broadcaster portion of the process, known as the “reverse auction,” because they have yet to commit to being involved.

The commission has received 104 applications, some incomplete, to participate in the second phase of the auction in which buyers will purchase the repackaged spectrum. Applicants include AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, as well as Comcast.