TV Stations Sue FCC Over Plan to Auction Broadcast Licenses

The cell-phone industry hopes the lawsuit won't delay the auction of valuable airwaves.

A lobbying group for TV stations sued the Federal Communications Commission Monday over the agency's plan to auction their broadcast licenses to cell-phone carriers.

TV stations don't have to participate in the auction, and the airwaves will mean faster smartphone connections for millions of consumers.

But the National Association of Broadcasters warned that the auction could hurt the TV stations that choose to stay on the air. In its lawsuit, the group claimed that the remaining stations could reach fewer viewers and could be forced to pay millions of dollars to revamp their equipment to work on new frequencies.

The lawsuit notes that Congress ordered the FCC to make "all reasonable efforts" to preserve the coverage area of TV stations that refuse to participate in the auction.

"Local broadcasters should not be forced to go out of pocket to help multi-national wireless giants," Rick Kaplan, an NAB executive, said in a blog post.

The group is not trying to stop the auction entirely, but wants the FCC to rework its rules to protect the stations that sit out the auction. Kaplan said the suit is "not designed to derail the auction, or even slow it down."

"We are looking for a mid-course correction that better reflects Congress' intent and that protects broadcasters and the millions of vulnerable over-the-air TV viewers," he said.

But a prolonged legal battle could become a headache for the FCC and could force the agency to delay the auction. The cell-phone industry has been clamoring for more airwaves, warning that their networks could soon become congested due to skyrocketing traffic.

Scott Bergmann, the head of regulatory affairs for wireless lobbying group CTIA, said he hopes the courts will handle the NAB's lawsuit quickly and that the broadcasters won't cause unnecessary delays.

An FCC spokesperson said the agency is "confident" that the plan complies with the law.

Walter Piecyk, a wireless industry analyst with the firm BTIG, said the FCC is already being optimistic by aiming for a 2015 auction.

"This provides just one more hurdle to deliver on that goal," he said.