At the NAB Convention last week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler discussed the timing of the incentive auction and how some of the remaining issues may soon be resolved. One subject of talk in a number of NAB sessions, as well as in the trade publications, has been how the repacking of broadcast television spectrum will proceed after the auction. Even FM broadcasters noted the potential for disruption of their operations as the repacking may affect shared users of broadcast towers, and given that hundreds of TV stations potentially face changing out antennas to operate on new channels in the smaller post-auction television band.
The Chairman made clear that the FCC will be announcing soon, perhaps as early as this week, the “spectrum clearing target” for the auction. In other words, the FCC will be announcing how much of the TV band it intends to try to clear for wireless broadband uses, based on how many TV stations expressed interest in potentially taking a buyout of their spectrum in their commitments filed at the end of last month. After the targets are announced, the FCC will quickly begin the reverse auction, a process where, round by round, the FCC will lower the prices offered to TV stations to abandon their spectrum until the FCC has committed to buy just the right amount of spectrum to meet its clearing targets. Then, it will turn around and repackage and resell that spectrum to wireless companies in the “forward auction.” The Chairman indicated that the clearing target may also signal the answers to many other issues.
The Chairman suggested that the clearing target, once announced, will give regulators and the industry a much better picture of how much TV spectrum will be left after the auction. His indications were that the amount of spectrum cleared could have a big impact on the resolution of a number of post-auction issues, including issues about what to do with LPTV and TV translator stations, the need to have some broadcast stations in congested markets operating in the wireless band after the auction, the availability of TV spectrum to set aside for unlicensed wireless uses, and the pace of the post-auction buildout as stations transition to new channels in the smaller TV band.
One of the biggest issues over the repacking is the question of whether the 39 months that the FCC has scheduled will be enough to move the hundreds of TV stations that may have to relocate into the smaller TV band. Stations that have not been bought out in the auction (either because they did not choose to participate, dropped out of the reverse auction or ultimately were not winning bidders in the auction) will in the vast majority of cases have to operate in the remaining TV spectrum. So those that currently operate on channels above the channel that will now top the TV band (which will be determined by the spectrum clearing target) will clearly have to move to new channels. But even stations that currently operate in the smaller post-auction TV band may have to change channels to make room, from an interference standpoint, for the new stations from higher channels that are repacked into the lower band.
The FCC has given stations 39 months to repack (and in some cases they may offer less time). In recent FCC filings, the NAB and others have argued that 39 months will not be enough time given limited tower crews capable of this work and limited capacity for the manufacture of the needed equipment to make the channel changes. Some wireless companies have disputed this analysis. Regardless of who is correct, it has become clear that planning and coordination will need to be done. In recent weeks, discussions have centered on a regional repacking plan, where the country will be divided into a number of regions, and all stations in that region will need to make their changes at the same time. A regional approach may help minimize interference issues among stations, and facilitate regional consumer education about the need to update tuners to reflect the new channels for their over-the-air TV reception. At the NAB Convention last week, there was also talk of a formal summit to discuss repacking coordination, and both the Chairman and Commissioner Pai seemed receptive to the idea of a planning summit. Given the confusion that occurred during the digital television transition, such coordination may prove very welcome.
Also discussed at the convention was the need for other tower users, particularly FM stations, to be cognizant of the upcoming transition, and their need to coordinate with tower owners about the disruption that the repack may cause to their operations. If tower crews are climbing around towers to replace TV antennas, and those towers also provide space for FM antennas, some FM operators may need to reduce power or even cease operations to avoid excess RF exposure to the tower crews. Radio stations need to be considering these issues now to plan to minimize the disruption that will be caused. Are your FM stations on a TV tower? Can you still operate if tower crews are changing the TV antenna? Is there another site from which you can temporarily operate if your FM operation does need to cease operations? As the repacking could quickly be upon us, broadcasters need to start to consider these issues.
The incentive auction is a reality, and TV broadcasters and radio operators who have antennas on TV towers need to start to think about the issues that it may pose. The introduction of the new ATSC 3.0 standard for TV (about which we wrote here) will also be considered by the FCC in the near future (the Chairman promising to take comments very soon), and that may be a further consideration for some TV stations in their transition planning. Coordination among TV stations may be limited during the “quiet period” surrounding the auction if the discussions could reveal a station’s bidding plans (see our article here – consult your station’s attorney as to whether technical employees not involved in the auction could start such conversations). But radio stations may want to start discussions with tower owners who are not themselves TV licensees about plans for this transition. A little planning now may save headaches later.