With great anticipation, the Stage 2 Forward Auction commenced at 10am this morning. It officially ended at 12:14pm, when the FCC announced:
Bidding in the forward auction has concluded for Stage 2 without meeting the final stage rule and without meeting the conditions to trigger an extended round. The incentive auction will continue with Stage 3 at a lower clearing target.
As I wrote less than a week ago, there was never much hope that the Stage 2 Forward Auction would bring in the $57B or so needed to cover the FCC’s bidding commitments and associated costs in the Stage 2 Reverse Auction. The Stage 1 Forward Auction concluded at a paltry $23B, and a sudden jump in bidding to nearly $60B in Stage 2 was definitely going to be a bid too far. However, as we discussed last week, spectrum auction groupies are basically split into two camps: those who think that wireless bidders were holding back in Stage 1 to conceal their resources and bidding strategies, and those who thought Stage 1 represented the high water mark, with the total amount bid going down as the amount of spectrum being cleared dropped with each stage. Based on this morning’s results, the latter group is growing.
Not that we should be surprised. With the FCC starting the bidding where the bids left off in Stage 1, the main reason for bidding in Stage 2 was to correct for any refinements of bidding strategy since Stage 1. Based on Stage 2 concluding after only one round of bidding, it appears that the wireless bidders had already refined their strategies before Stage 1 commenced, and didn’t see any reason to change their approach now.
The rapid conclusion of the Stage 2 Forward Auction does appear to have surprised the FCC a bit. The FCC announced this morning that:
The FCC expects to release a public notice next week announcing details about the next stage, including the clearing target for Stage 3, and the time and date at which bidding in Stage 3 of the reverse auction will begin.
While this language is quite similar to the language that concluded Stage 1 (except for the addition of “expects to”), it certainly contrasts with recent statements from the FCC about its intent to accelerate the auction process, including its statement (later modified) that the Stage 2 Forward Auction would commence “on the next business day after the close of bidding in Stage 2 of the reverse auction.”
So the big question now is whether the FCC will continue to slowly reduce the clearing target (126 MHz in Stage 1, 114 MHz in Stage 2, and now 108 MHz in Stage 3?) as it previously indicated it was bound to do, or whether it can make a more significant reduction that brings the forward and reverse auction dollar figures much closer together. While some have argued that there is no reason for the FCC to expedite the process, and that remaining on the slow and meticulous path of very incremental clearing targets converts the greatest amount of broadcast spectrum to wireless use, bidder fatigue is definitely beginning to set in. More importantly, the sooner the auction is concluded, the sooner spectrum is freed for its newfound purpose, so the delay is not harmless.
In addition, the continued applicability of the rule on prohibited communications during the auction has put much of the TV broadcast industry into a cryogenic state, particularly with regard to station sales. Dragging the process out any longer than necessary causes real economic harm, and the impact only grows as station owners recognize there will be no windfall and want to move quickly to sell stations they otherwise would have sold several years ago.
With forward auctions now measured in hours, it is clear that it is the reverse auctions where significant time is being lost in concluding the Incentive Auction. The Stage 1 Reverse Auction lasted 28 days, and the Stage 2 Reverse Auction lasted 30 days. Unlike the Forward Auction, which went from 14 days to half a day, the Stage 2 Reverse Auction still consumed significant time, even with a reduced spectrum clearing target. More rapidly reducing the spectrum clearing target is the most efficient way of moving new spectrum to wireless use, commencing the broadcast repack, and putting broadcasters back on the road to normalcy.
After six years of the National Broadband Plan and its key component, the Spectrum Incentive Auction, it’s getting hard for broadcasters to remember what normal feels like.