Its been interesting to see the various reactions to today’s announcement from the FCC that Stage 1 of the Reverse Auction concluded with a total clearing cost of $86.4B (apparently excluding nearly $2B for the $1.75B relocation fund and other auction costs).
Most opinions, including my own, were that this amount is laughable in view of how much wireless operators have available to spend on buying spectrum. Some have suggested this means that broadcasters are pricing themselves out of the auction by asking for an excessive amount of money. But the reality is that the FCC set the initial prices (of up to $1B per station) and all broadcasters had to decide was whether or not to participate and if so, at what point to drop out.
Importantly, if the FCC had no excess supply of TV stations willing to offer their spectrum in the auction, then it was obligated to freeze the bids at the opening price. It seems very unlikely that if a broadcaster was willing to participate at an opening bid of say $900M (in New York) then it would decide to drop out at $800M or even $500M. And notably the total opening bids if the FCC moved every single station off-air would be only $342B.
So even though the FCC has described broadcaster participation in the auction as “strong”, it seems that this statement may be code for “somewhat disappointing” because it has proved impossible to obtain sufficient participation to lower the opening bids in a number of key markets, if the full 126MHz target set by the FCC is to be cleared.
Of course the FCC would have been criticized if it had set a lower initial clearance target and it subsequently became evident that sufficient participation existed to reach the maximum. However, it now seems plausible that Round 1 of the forward auction could go nowhere, because there is little reason for participants to reveal their bidding strategies if it is essentially impossible for the clearing costs to be covered. That will probably also lead to criticism of the FCC for miscalculating the level of demand for spectrum, and certainly broadcasters will be highlighting that they apparently value spectrum more highly than the wireless carriers.
As a result, we are likely to see multiple rounds of the reverse auction, in which the clearing target is gradually reduced, until a more reasonable level of clearing costs (perhaps $30B or so) is reached. Although we could see quite a sharp reduction in clearing costs in Round 2 once more markets are unfrozen, it may need as many as 3 more rounds, with 84MHz cleared (representing 70MHz of spectrum to be auctioned), assuming the FCC incrementally reduces the target from 100MHz auctioned to 90MHz to 80MHz to 70MHz. At that point DISH could have even more reason to bid up the prices aggressively, because less spectrum will be available to its competitors, especially T-Mobile, so we might actually end up with the final forward auction bids exceeding the clearing costs by $10B+.
But for now, speculation as to which broadcasters declined to participate is likely to intensify. My suspicion is that fewer of the small and non-commercial broadcasters than expected might have decided to participate. After all as one station in Pennsylvania told the WSJ back in January, “it won’t consider going off the air…because it would lose its PBS affiliation and go against the station’s stated mission of serving the public”. That would mean more of the reverse auction proceeds potentially going to commercial ventures, especially those that were bought up by investment firms with the explicit aim of selling their licenses.
Moreover, it may even be reasonable to guess at some of the markets which may have been frozen at the opening bids: for example, it seems likely that this must include some of the biggest cities, such as New York or Chicago, for such a high total clearing cost to have been reached. No doubt investors will be contemplating what that might mean for those companies that own broadcast licenses in these areas, especially if they have indicated their willingness to participate.