Yeah, in hindsight they could've done it that way. Just having let the chips fall where they may.
I suppose also in hindsight, at the same time they were mandating that all stations were on air digitally by 5/1/02 they could have mandated that all cable co's be HD ready, willing, and able by that time too. Oh, but we couldnt have done that could we. You cant mandate like that to somebody that isnt really using a resource like the airwaves to deliver a product.
But without having done that how on Gods green earth did they expect any of this to fly. Would it really matter as of today if every single station were up and running? Would any appreciable number of homes be watching the signals regardless, without cable delivery? 80% of the households use cable or DBS these days. Were the vast majority of people really about to go and spend hundreds on decoders, even more on sets to display the HD signals properly, and install antennas to be able to view them OTA? Obviously not because even in the areas where the stations are up and running in good numbers, people arent buying the means to see them.
In other words even if the stations all had made the deadline you still couldnt have auctioned off the spectrum because until cable co's start carrying the digital signals theres no way that any more than 20% of households would even be equipped to see them. And the very 20% of the people that might rely on OTA only, or the folks that have secondary sets that arent connected to the cable arent about to buy in either. Like Gramma and her 19" Philco is about to buy in? Or the folks watching that 13" OTA tv in the kitchen over breakfast are about to buy a digital tv just to be able to do that, even if the local airwaves are full of digital signals?
People are not going to give one lick about digital signals until they are simply hardwired into their homes via cable or DBS. Once that happens you'll be near the 85% you need and then and only then can you even begin to worry about auctioning anything off. Until then, you wont be auctioning off anything but raffle tickets. Simple as that.