CES 2016: FCC Chairman Wheeler predicts an 'extravaganza' at wireless spectrum auction

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is clearly excited. 

In a one-on-one interview with Consumer Technology Association president and CEO Gary Shapiro at CES in Las Vegas today, Wheeler spoke colorfully about the upcoming spectrum auction, promising a "spectrum extravaganza" and hinting at a more wide-reaching auction than some have predicted

In March, the FCC is expected to launch the first rounds of a complex nationwide auction in which wireless carriers can bid to acquire spectrum owned by TV broadcasting stations, which would bolster their networks to help meet demand for mobile broadband. With the exception of Sprint, which has announced that it will not bid for spectrum (it acquired a large stock of spectrum in its 2012 acquisition of Clearwire), the auction is expected to attract many wireless service providers and even other companies like Google that have a vested interest in acquiring spectrum.

With less than a week until the deadline for broadcasters to announce their intention to participate in the auction, Wheeler was confident in predicting a flurry of activity.

"You're going to see lots of interest in selling the spectrum, and lot's of interest in buying the spectrum," Wheeler said.

Wheeler also suggested the possibility of major-market TV broadcasters participating. Some have speculated that broadcasters in big-market cities would decline to participate in the auction, opting instead to continue doing business with their valuable spectrum than seek what essentially amounts to a buyout in the auction.

But when Shapiro asked if the FCC wants to see "spectrum transferred in every major city," Wheeler replied, "oh yeah, it will."

Wheeler deflected questions about the financial implications of the auction, insisting that he's more interested in the transfer of spectrum it enables than the amount of money that changes hands.

However, he did say that broadcasters, many of whom initially saw the auction as a threat, have shown a lot of interest in the reverse auction through which they can sell their spectrum to the FCC. And as for wireless carriers, Wheeler paraphrased a famous Mark Twain quote: "Buy land. They're not making it anymore."

"On the other side, this is the last time that we sell the sand on the beach," Wheeler added. "Because this is beach-front spectrum."

The best-case scenario for the auction is to see "lots of spectrum sold to lots of wireless carriers," Wheeler said. When asked what he sees as the worst-case scenario, Wheeler said it would be that "it all blows up and we're wrong." But he was quick to reiterate his confidence in the plan.

"I'll go to the bookies here in Vegas and put my money down against that," he said.

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