That means a good deal more spectrum for mobile operators that need all they can get to deliver cat videos, Hollywood fare and work emails to your phone. With up to 126MHz of spectrum or as many as 10 licenses available, the auction could also reshape the wireless industry, giving smaller carriers a chance to offer you the same, strong nationwide coverage that Verizon Wireless and AT&T deliver. Together, those two companies control more than 70 percent of the US wireless market.
While this milestone marks just the beginning of the complicated process, the FCC sees it as an early victory over naysayers who questioned whether the agency would ever be able to convince TV broadcasters to give up their valuable wireless spectrum.
"The wireless industry has said it needs additional spectrum to meet growing customer demand and usher in the age of 5G," FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. "The broadcasters have stepped up and done their part to fulfill that demand."
This particular swath of spectrum is highly prized -- industry insiders call it "beachfront property" -- because it operates at a lower frequency. That means it can run across greater distances and go through walls for superior coverage.
The next stage of the auction, in which broadcasters will actually accept specific bids from the government on their licenses, will begin May 31. Then the FCC will take the licenses the government bought and resell them to wireless operators. That phase is expected to begin in June or July.
The auction could end as early as this summer or it could drag on into 2017. If the prices the broadcasters agree to are too high and don't meet the demand from wireless operators, the process begins again. The question then will be, how many broadcasters -- and their spectrum -- actually remain.