FCC puts the brakes on its big spectrum auction, delaying it until 2015

Pulling off a feat as enormously complex as the government’s planned broadcast spectrum incentive auction was going to be a long shot for 2014. On Friday new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler officially acknowledged those difficulties, announcing in a blog post the auction would be postponed until 2015.

The auction will be the first major release of mobile broadband spectrum since the 700 MHz auction of 2008, transferring 600 MHz licenses today held by TV broadcasters to mobile carriers who want it for it LTE and future mobile data networks. But this is no ordinary auction. It would involve a complicated scenario of reverse bids, in which broadcasters would agree to part with certain frequencies at certain prices. The FCC would then repackage those airwaves into chunks usable by the mobile operators, and then the carriers would bid on those blocks.

As Stacey Higginbotham and I wrote when Wheeler first took office, this auction will be one of the defining events of the new chairman’s term, and it not handled properly it could quickly turn into a disaster. Wheeler opted, probably wisely, to give himself some wiggle room.

“… as any responsible manager knows, managing a complex undertaking such as this also requires an ongoing commitment to continuously and honestly assess its readiness and its project plan,” Wheeler wrote on the FCC blog. “I believe we can conduct a successful auction in the middle of 2015.”

Wheeler said he would release more details on the auction timetable at the commission’s January meeting.