How Will The FCC’s Incentive Auction Play Out?

Television Broadcasters, existing wireless carriers, potential new wireless entrants, speculators and the FCC itself all are curious about how the long awaited U.S. Incentive Auction of 600 MHz spectrum will play out.  Prominent questions include:


–       How much spectrum will the FCC clear?

–       How much will the cleared spectrum cost the FCC?

–       How much impairment will there be in the spectrum blocks offered to carriers and other bidders?

–       How many television stations will be assigned a repacked channel in the duplex gap or elsewhere in the new flexible use band?


In a new analysis conducted on behalf of a former Member of the Expanding Opportunities For Broadcasters Coalition, Cramton and Associates attempted to answer these questions.  Peter Cramton is a highly expert auction economist having advised 12 governments and 36 bidders in spectrum auctions around the world.  He has assembled a team of remarkably talented associates.  For their just completed Incentive Auction analysis they developed a full suite of auction tools including sat solvers, reservation (exit) price models, pre-solvers and performance analysis modules, an auction simulator (including what may be the only private sector replication of the FCC’s ISIX interference standards) and a clearing target optimizer.  All of these tools faithfully replicate the tools the FCC will use to run the auction and fully implement U.S. government agreements with Mexico and Canada.


The Cramton team did not “back into” their findings.  Most importantly, they did not start with assumed clearing targets.  Instead they made reasonable (even conservative) assumptions regarding broadcaster participation and then let the optimizer program work its magic.  For example, in the base case they assumed that affiliates of the top 5 commercial networks and PBS in the top 50 markets – the markets most critical to establishing the clearing target – would not tender their channels.  And they performed thousands of simulations that tested varying levels of TV Station reservation prices to assure robust results.


Of course, no pre-auction simulation can predict actual auction results with 100% accuracy.  But, the Cramton results represent a highly reliable estimate of the likely outcome of the Incentive Auction.  Those results include the following:


–       The FCC is likely to clear at least 114 MHz.  Tendering one additional TV Station beyond the base case in each market – perhaps through channel sharing – clears 126 MHz.

–       At 114 MHz, national impairment is likely to be only 4.9% and will be concentrated along the Mexican border, with minor impairment in the Northeast (4.5% national impairment comes from Mexico – so only 0.4% of the impairment comes from U.S. Stations).

–       At 114 MHz, 96.8 % of the spectrum blocks offered to bidders in the top 40 markets will be “Category 1” blocks.

–       Clearing 114 MHz is expected to cost the FCC approximately $42 Billion (including broadcaster repacking reimbursement and the cost of running the auction) or $1.49 MHz/Pop.  Because this is an actual simulation, not a “prediction”, there is no estimate of how much more carriers and others may bid.

–       At 114 MHz, only between 1 and 3 TV Stations will be assigned a channel in the duplex gap or elsewhere in the flexible use band – fewer even than FCC Chairman Wheeler’s July 16 press conference estimate.


The results of the new Cramton analysis should give comfort to television broadcasters, to wireless carriers and to the FCC Officials who have worked tirelessly to implement Congress’ auction mandate.

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