How electromagnetic spectrum was reallocated with a Nobel Prize-winning theory : Planet Money A Nobel-Prize winner spent years designing an auction to sell off the airwaves, which are owned by the public. But Wall Street found a tiny flaw. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
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Hacking the Perfect Auction

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Hacking the Perfect Auction

Hacking the Perfect Auction

Hacking the Perfect Auction

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/932048876/933210419" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Pamphlets at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) booth provide information on the FCC spectrum dashboard at the CTIA Wireless conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Thursday, March 25, 2010. Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption

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Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Pamphlets at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) booth provide information on the FCC spectrum dashboard at the CTIA Wireless conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Thursday, March 25, 2010.

Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In 2016, the Federal Communications Commission held a very special auction. For decades, a lot of the electromagnetic spectrum — the airwaves over which TV, radio and wireless signals are transmitted — were owned by TV stations. But in recent years, cell phones and other wireless technologies have been hungry for more of the spectrum.

So the FCC planned to auction off a big part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The result would pave the way for a future of even better wireless service. The auction was incredibly complicated and would involve years of planning, enormous sums of money and of course... people trying to game the system.

Today on the show, a story about auction design, local TV, Wall Street, and a staggering amount of red licorice and Tums.

Clarification: A private equity firm purchased all eleven stations in the WBGN network, not just the flagship WBGN station, for just over $7 million. The flagship station was sold into the auction by the firm for $20.1 million. In total the firm sold five stations for $73.9 million. The audio has been updated to reflect this.

Music: "Cybernetical," "Strut the Funk" and "Gotta Shred."

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