The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is "on track" to hold the incentive auction of broadcast TV airwaves in early 2016, Chairman Tom Wheeler said on Wednesday.
The FCC will begin accepting auction applications in fall 2015, Wheeler said while speaking at the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas.
The so-called "broadcast TV spectrum incentive auction" is an FCC effort to buy back 600 megahertz wireless airwaves from broadcasters and repackage them to sell to the wireless industry.
The auction is considered the agency's most complex undertaking to date, balancing economic, engineering and political considerations, including wooing broadcasters to give up airwaves, which means going off the air or sharing frequencies with other stations.
The latest sale follows the record-setting $41.3 billion AWS-3 spectrum auction, which ended in January with bids for valuable airwaves to be used for mobile data.
The broadcast airwaves, or spectrum, are particularly attractive to wireless carriers as they can transport signals over large distances and penetrate populated areas.
Although all large carriers are expected to participate in the auction, AT&T Inc so far has been the only one to pledge a specific amount, at least $9 billion. T-Mobile and Dish have also said that they would take part.
The FCC has been drumming up interest among broadcasters by reaching out to them over the last few months to bring them on board to sell spectrum.
"In addition to the hundreds of broadcasters of all sizes that have privately expressed interest in the auction, Fox, ION, Tribune, and Univision have publicly expressed their interest in participating," Wheeler said.
He also reiterated the idea of allowing a more than 25 percent foreign ownership of a U.S. broadcaster, which the FCC is now only allowed to permit on a case-by-case basis. The issue was raised by Commissioner Michael O'Rielly on a FCC blog posted in March.
"There are important details that will need to be considered, including how to make appropriate allowance for any national security issues that might arise," Wheeler said. "But, overall, I am optimistic that this is an opportunity that we will grasp successfully."
Talking about the recent series of lawsuits challenging the regulator's new Internet rules, Wheeler said the FCC was hopeful that the court would dispose of petitions against net neutrality rules. AT&T and three cable and wireless trade groups filed lawsuits in Washington on Tuesday.