UPDATE 2-Top bids $2.78 bln as US wireless auction opens

(Adds second round of bidding, quote from analyst)

WASHINGTON, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Top bidders put up a total of almost $2.78 billion on Thursday in the opening rounds of the Federal Communications Commission’s auction of coveted U.S. government-owned airwaves.

The figure represents the highest bids received for five separate blocks of spectrum at the beginning of the auction, which is eventually expected to net the federal government at least $10 billion.

Companies qualified to bid include major carriers AT&T Inc T.N and Verizon Wireless, as well as possible new competitors like Internet company Google Inc GOOG.O, EchoStar Communications Corp DISH.O and Cablevision Systems Corp CVC.N.

Identities of bidders will be kept secret, under FCC rules, until the entire auction ends.

Analysts say the major carriers could use the new spectrum to offer consumers more advanced services such as broadband access via mobile phones and wireless broadband to laptop computers.

Verizon Wireless is a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc VZ.N and Vodafone Group Plc VOD.L.

The $2.78 billion worth of opening high bids included a $472 million offer for a closely watched block of spectrum, known as the “D” block, which will have to be shared with public safety agencies under FCC rules.

It also included an opening high bid of about $1.24 billion for the sought-after “C” block, which carries another condition requiring that it be open to all devices and software applications as long as the minimum price is met.

Rebecca Arbogast, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus, said there was nothing unexpected in the bidding so far, and it will be until middle of next week before “we will start seeing what the likely outcome is going to be on the D block and whether the open-access conditions will be triggered on the C block.”

The FCC issued results of the first two rounds of bidding for the government-owned spectrum shortly after the rounds ended at noon (1700 GMT) and 4:30 p.m.(2130 GMT).

The FCC has set minimum prices of $1.3 billion and $4.7 billion for the D and C blocks respectively. These blocks could be used to create a national network.

Other spectrum includes local chunks set aside in blocks designated “A” and “B”. The final, “E” block, is considered less useful because it is limited to one-way data transmission.

The 700-megahertz signals are valuable because they can go long distances and penetrate thick walls. The airwaves are being returned by television broadcasters as they move to digital from analog signals in early 2009.

The electronic auction is expected to continue for weeks or even months and will end when no more bids are submitted. The FCC plans to hold multiple rounds of back-and-forth bidding each day on each of five blocks of spectrum available for sale.

Results from each round are made publicly available on the FCC’s Web site about 10 minutes afterward.

Starting on Friday, the FCC is scheduled to hold three rounds of bidding each day until further notice. Bidding typically accelerates as the auction progresses. (Editing by Tim Dobbyn, Gary Hill)