Michael Dell stands to make billions of dollars on local TV stations you’re probably not watching.
Since 2011, Michael Dell and his partners have quietly invested over $80 million to buy up independent TV stations, according to government records obtained by the Wall Street Journal. Most of those investments were in TV stations that had small, if any, viewership, and catered to a small portion of the market, according to the Journal. In one instance, Dell’s investment company, MSD Capital, through its subsidiary OTA Broadcasting LLC, acquired a station in Pittsburgh that airs only a local Catholic Church’s daily mass and reruns of the formerly popular TV series “Roseanne.”
While a billionaire buying up hardly watched TV stations may sound odd, there’s a plausible reason for those investments: All of the stations own potentially valuable broadcast spectrum. That broadcast spectrum has been tapped by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to be repurposed to enhance wireless network reliability and speeds. Collectively, Dell’s investments could see him tally up to $4 billion on his $80 million investment.
The way Dell’s investment team could ultimately get to $4 billion is complicated, to say the least.
Starting in March, the FCC will hold the first-ever “incentive auction.” The auction will allow TV station owners who hold rights to spectrum that could otherwise be used for wireless networks to put that spectrum up for auction. Wireless companies, including Verizon (VZ), AT&T (T), Sprint (S), and T-Mobile (TMUS), among others, will then have the ability to buy that spectrum at auction to enhance their own networks. According to data obtained by Fortune from the FCC, opening bid prices on those auctions rise well into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
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It is believed—though not confirmed—that Dell’s investment arm acquired those stations for the sole purpose of eventually selling the spectrum to wireless companies. For a relatively paltry sum, Dell and his team could net a massive return on the investment and ultimately walk away with billions of dollars in-hand after only a few years of operating hardly watched TV stations.
At its core, the auction has a meaningful purpose. As the FCC notes on its website, the incentive auction is aimed at helping everyone—companies and consumers, alike.
“The auction will use market forces to align the use of broadcast spectrum with 21st century consumer demands for video and broadband services,” the agency writes. “It will preserve a robust broadcast TV industry while enabling stations to generate additional revenues that they can invest into programming and services to the communities they serve. And by making valuable ‘low-band’ airwaves available for wireless broadband, the incentive auction will benefit consumers by easing congestion on wireless networks, laying the groundwork for ‘fifth generation’ (5G) wireless services and applications, and spurring job creation and economic growth.”
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Still, not everyone is pleased by the idea. Both AT&T and Verizon have had restrictions placed upon them for how much spectrum they can buy, in order to to ensure smaller carriers, like Sprint and T-Mobile, may also benefit from the sale. In addition, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has expressed concern with the rules, since even those stations that do not participate in the auction will be forced to move their spectrum. In other words, even if a station does not decide to sell its spectrum in the auction, the FCC will lump them on spectrum bands with those that went to auction.
So, there is essentially a web of rules, regulations, and other issues that will ultimately affect everyone. The ultimate goal is for wireless networks to bolstered by using the spectrum that TV stations have been using for years. In the process, however, there are fears that the goal won’t match the outcome.
For Michael Dell, however, the road forward seems clear. Assuming Dell makes the decision to sell his TV stations’ spectrum, he stands to make a significant return. But he’s not alone. According to the Journal’s sources, CBS (CBS) and Comcast (CMCSA), among others, have also decided to put some of their local TV affiliates up for sale. Private equity firms that have been gobbling up stations are also looking to sell their stations.
Still, one question remains: Will they actually be successful in selling those stations? While the stations start the auction at a price of their choosing, the prices will continue to tumble until the telecoms come to an agreement. It’s possible, therefore, that the sales prices will be much lower than Dell and the others would anticipate. It’s also possible that no sales will be registered, creating a no-win situation for all parties involved.
If there are sales, TV stations essentially have two options: Move their channels to another broadcast frequency or go off the air. It’s unknown what those stations will decide until the auction is over.
Either way, it sounds like Michael Dell may be in for a massive payday in 2016.
Michael Dell’s MSD Capital did not immediately respond to a request for comment. OTA declined comment on the possible auction.