Editorial: Keep 'Em Covered

After stations are repacked, the FCC expects it will cause less than a 2% reduction in coverage area

The FCC’s draft rulemaking proposal on spectrum incentive auctions
that was circulated more than a week ago is still a work in
progress, with the commissioners vetting it and making edits.
One thing is clear, however: FCC chairman Julius Genachowski
wants to get the process moving, with the goal of voting out an order
by the middle of next year and completing the auctions by 2014.

It is an ambitious timetable, given the Heinz
ketchup pace of much movement in Washington.
And it’s one that depends on the FCC giving
broadcasters sufficient information with which
to make a decision about their future, as well as
the medium’s. Everyone should be thankful that
there aren’t 57 varieties among the decisions.

Key among the commission’s proposals, of
course, is how stations not selling out to wireless
companies will be repacked and moved
into smaller spectrum quarters to free up large
swatches of spectrum.

One thing we were glad to learn is that in the
notice of proposed rulemaking,
according to sources
who have seen the draft language,
the “repacking” section
of the 130-page opus
(not including addenda) includes
the FCC’s expectation
that its move of stations will
cause less than a 2% reduction
in coverage area.

Ideally, there would be
no reduction. While 98% is
an A on the grading scale,
looked at another way, nobody
wants a 2% pay cut,
or a reduction in the number
of potential eyeballs for
those ads supporting that
still-valuable free broadcast medium.

We had feared the FCC might try to expand that
tolerance zone beyond 2% in its rush to collect
spectrum for wireless. That would, in our humble
opinion, have been an unreasonable effort by the
commission to put its thumb on the scale in favor
of wireless broadband, instead of making all reasonable
efforts to preserve TV station coverage areas,
which Congress has told the FCC it must do.

Of course, the language is still in draft form,
and edits can and certainly will be made. But
unless someone tries to slip in some new wiggle
room on coverage areas, the FCC has a laudable
target in keeping the damage below 2%. Though
with all that engineering brainpower at the FCC,
maybe even tighter tolerances are achievable,
given the continued importance of over-the-air

Anyone watching TV two weekends ago could
have vouched for that importance: WUSA Washington,
for example, preempted its coverage of a
U.S. Open tennis semifinal to provide ongoing
reports of severe thunderstorms and tornado and flash-flood warnings.

On that note, several members of the Tennessee
delegation—Republicans and Democrats—last
week volunteered their opinion to the commission
that making sure the public still has access
to free TV is as important a national priority as
freeing up spectrum for mobile broadband. Now,
nobody denies the wonderful world of apps, from
time-sapping Angry Birds to life-saving health
monitoring. But as broadcasters have pointed
out, broadband and broadcasting are symbiotic.

The National Association of Broadcasters looked
to put an exclamation point on its argument
for the continued health of broadcasting in an
FCC filing last week on the state of video competition.
The NAB pointed out that over-the-air
broadcasting is still the primary programming
vehicle in more than 20 million households;
news is on the rise; and multicast stations multiplied
from 2,518 channels at the end of 2010 to
an estimated 4,552 by the end of last year.

“While increasing the amount of spectrum
allocated to wireless broadband fulfills an important
national goal,” the legislators wrote, “it
is equally important that the Federal Communications
Commission protects the ability of the
public to continue to receive over-the-air signals
from stations that do not participate in the auction,”
and actually for those that do as well, since
one of the options for stations is to give up some,
but not all, spectrum.

Protecting that ability means reproducing as
closely as is technically feasible broadcast coverage
areas. If the FCC is serious about preserving
a robust one-to-many model for broadcasting, a
model that could even turn out to be a lifesaver
for wireless operators looking to off-load traffic
at peak periods, it must demonstrate that by delivering
on the draft’s goal of coverage area and
interference protections.