WASHINGTON -- By the time the Federal Communications Commission's first auction of the public airwaves adjourned for the day yesterday, bids had more than doubled from Monday's steep opening round and were still climbing.
"It's a slugfest," said David H. Brock of Metrocall, a paging company in Alexandria, Va., that was not participating in the bidding. The sale covered 10 nationwide licenses, expected to be used for advanced two-way paging services.
Of the 29 bidders who registered, about half appeared to have dropped out by midday yesterday, and action in the Blue Room in the Omni Shoreham Hotel had dwindled to the major players and some hard-core stragglers.
By day's end, a clearly exhausted array of bidders had pushed the combined total of high bids for 10 nationwide paging licenses to $343 million.
Most of the action seemed to focus on less than five big players, who were identified only by bidding identification numbers displayed on television monitors around the room. Two companies alone bid $50 million each for four of the 10 licenses being auctioned.
Late this year, a set of potentially even more valuable licenses, for personal communications services, will go on the block. The yield for the Treasury had been estimated at $10 billion, but given the intense competition this time around, the figure could go much higher.
Industry executives said this round's heavyweight bidders probably include Paging Network, BellSouth, Mobilemedia Communications Inc., Airtouch Paging and McCaw Cellular. The auction will end only when each of the registered bidders has either dropped out or won one or more licenses, up to a limit of three.
Some minority businesses continued to complain publicly that the stiff bidding had shut them out. On three of the licenses for sale, companies owned by women and members of minority groups, and small businesses -- identified as "designated entities" by the communications commission -- in theory at least have an advantage. On those licenses they have to pay only 75 percent of their bids.
Competing bidders not in the designated entities category had little sympathy.
"Twenty-five percent isn't enough of a break?" asked Wayne Perry of McCaw Cellular, who has been a flamboyant presence in the bidding room. "Give me a break," he said. "McCaw started with nothing. We were a small company. We had to claw and scratch our way up."