FCC Faces Challenges on Coverage Changes

But wireless companies side with commission on calculating coverage area and interference protections

The FCC in early February quietly released a proposed update to the Longley-Rice model and TVStudy software the commission will use to calculate TV station coverage areas and interference potential as it repacks stations after the incentive auctions.

The response has been anything but quiet, illustrating the difficulty of reconciling a host of players with different agendas to achieve the first-ever combined forward and reverse auction, with the future of broadcasting hanging in the balance.

The FCC got an earful in reply comments from broadcasters and other parties with an interest in how the agency fits stations into smaller spectrum real estate after the incentive auctions, scheduled to be completed by the end of next year.

While broadcasters and wireless companies agree that the FCC’s band plan for repacking needs rethinking because of how it combines the two, wireless companies are backing the FCC’s proposal.

The following is a sampling of the reply comments filed at the FCC on the subject, according to commission documents.

The Law Is the Law. The National Association of Broadcasters, joined by the Big Four broadcast networks and their affiliate associations, are all in agreement that changing the calculation now would run afoul of the law that created the incentive auctions. How can the FCC comply with the mandate to preserve current station coverage areas and interference protections after the auctions if they implement a change that will radically alter some of those? The opponents also complain that the change was proposed at the bureau level, rather than by the full commission.

The broadcasters argue it is no surprise wireless companies are backing the change, since they stand to benefit from reductions in broadcasters’ predicted coverage areas. Those reductions would allow the FCC to pack stations more tightly in their reduced coverage areas, which means more spectrum for wireless, which is both the FCC’s and wireless companies’ ultimate goal.

Noncom NIMBY. Noncommercial broadcasters joined commercial ones in giving a big bird to the FCC for its attempt to change the methodology in the so-called Bulletin 69. In their filing, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS and the Association of Public Television Stations said the change would create “widespread uncertainty for stations and would make it difficult for public television stations to serve their mission of providing all Americans with important free, noncommercial television services.”

Congress instructed the FCC to use that methodology in its repacking of TV stations after the incentive auctions, and commercial and noncommercial broadcasters alike interpret that to mean the method in existence when the law was adopted last year, not the FCC’s proposed update.

While the FCC is bound by statute to make all reasonable efforts to protect TV stations’ coverage areas and interference protections post-auction, the noncoms say that the changes fail to do so and, instead, “significantly reduce the coverage area and population served for many stations.”

Quitcher Beefin’. The Wireless Association told the FCC that it should go ahead with the change. It did not challenge NAB’s and noncoms’ arguments that the change could result in “dramatic coverage losses.” But the association said complaints about those potential changes missed the point, which was that the new model would be closer to reality. “The goal is to have accurate coverage, whatever it may be,” CTIA said. “Contrary to NAB’s assertions, the Commission does not propose to change the methodology described in OET Bulletin 69. Instead, the Commission proposes to take advantage of technological and data developments that will allow for a more faithful implementation of the methodology.”

What They Said. The Consumer Electronics Association, which has been pushing the FCC to reclaim as much spectrum from broadcasters as possible, agrees with CTIA that the FCC proposal is fine. The CEA argues the FCC isn’t changing the methodology, and even if it were that would square with the incentive auction law. Using the TVStudy software, the CEA says, will further the ultimate goal of the law, which is to put broadcast spectrum into the hands of wireless companies.

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