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Will stations sell spectrum at auction?

In a recent interview with “Bloomberg News,” Paul Karpowicz, who runs 12 television stations for Meredith Corp., had a definitive answer when asked if his company’s stations will be sold in the upcoming FCC’s incentive auctions.

“No. The answer would be, ‘No,’’’ said Karpowicz, president of the local media group of Meredith, based in Des Moines, Iowa. ‘‘I haven’t talked to anyone who is personally excited about jumping into an auction.’’

The problem with asking Karpowicz, much less other media and engineering executives such a question, is they won’t make the final decision to sell or not. In fact, most such executives may not offer objective answers since their own jobs are on the line in such a decision.

The Obama administration has set a 10-year schedule to provide additional broadband capability to mobile Internet providers and to avoid what FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has termed ‘‘a looming spectrum crisis.’’ Congress has now approved FCC-suggested broadcast auctions that would have television stations electively give up part of their spectrum for sharing in the auction proceeds.

The strategy in part depends on TV station owners selling some or all of their airwaves—the largest swath of spectrum identified by the FCC as a candidate for reassignment. Station owners can also chose not to take part.

On March 21, Genachowski appointed a task force to devise rules for the auctions. No date has yet been set.

‘‘We don’t know how many broadcasters will be interested in relinquishing their spectrum,’’ Republican FCC member Robert McDowell told Bloomberg News. ‘‘We won’t know until we ask.’’

Blair Levin, the former FCC official who’s now a fellow at the Washington-based policy group Aspen Institute, told Bloomberg the auctions of TV stations may reap 60-to-80 megahertz of airwaves, compared with 120 anticipated in the National Broadband Plan that he helped author at the FCC.

Broadcast executives are still speculating about alternative ways they can participate in broadband, although to this point it has all been just talk. None have come up with any concrete deals or partners that actually make them a distributor of broadband signals.

Karpowicz, who is also joint chairman of the NAB's TV and Radio board of directors, asks “why would I give up spectrum and forgo this potential opportunity (delivering broadband) for a one-time payoff when you don’t know what that payoff will be?”

At the end of the day, it will be up to broadcast station owners’ whether they sell or not. John Hane, a communications attorney with the Washington-based Pillsbury Law Firm, predicted that some broadcasters might be willing to sell, particularly those that own TV stations in smaller cities that aren’t national network affiliates and don’t attract large audiences.

“These stations are scraping by,” Hane said. “There are just not a lot of things to do if you’re not the lead dog.”

Other owners may see the changing times, and emerging technologies such as the Internet, as signals it is time to sell. No matter the talk of media executives or trade groups, the decision will come down to a very few people making a very personal decision. No one else knows yet, including many of the owners themselves.