It’s Moving Time Again For Broadcast TV Stations

As auction ends, broadcasters will be on the clock to get moving

Why This Matters

Stations are preparing to move to new channels, and may be transitioning to a new transmission standard at the same time.

The seemingly endless spectrum auction is not quite over, but it now has an end date of March 30, and the FCC is not waiting until then to nudge broadcasters toward their new spectrum homes, or to give them a potentially transformative way to transmit their over-the-air signals.

While broadcasters’ portion of the auction ended on Jan. 18, when their $10 billion exit price was met, the transition to new spectrum is just beginning.

The “clock” phase of the forward auction is over, too, with $19.6 billion bid for 70 MHz of spectrum, but there are still logistical mileposts to pass before the TV station repack can begin, including a mini-auction for winning wireless bidders that will nail down specific frequencies for the generic blocks they bought.

Within a few weeks after the March 30 end date, the FCC will issue its final public notice, providing auction details (see below), as well as letting everyone know TV stations’ final channel assignments. Stations will have 39 months to make the move, which has been likened to the DTV transition.

New FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Reilly have committed to looking out for broadcasters following an auction premised on the assumption that wireless broadband would be a higher, better use of broadcast spectrum.

Pai said the top priority would be to “ensure uninterrupted access to over-the-air television and a timely clearing of the new wireless band.” O’Reilly added it would take a lot of work to minimize disruption for broadcasters.

Pai has given broadcasters a new lease on their after-auction lives by scheduling a Feb. 23 vote on the proposal to roll out the new ATSC 3.0 transmission standard—which will allow stations to deliver 4K and interactive content—in concert with the post-auction repack.

Since the FCC was only able to clear 84 MHz of available spectrum—wireless broadband providers weren’t willing to pony up the $86 billion price tag for the full 126 MHz originally offered—fewer broadcasters will need to change channels or face potential interference from wireless operators, and it is more likely that the $1.75 billion Congress set aside from the auction for moving expenses will cover the cost.

SHOW U.S. THE MONEY

The FCC has finalized its list of repack expenses that broadcasters, and some cable operators, can submit for reimbursement from the $1.75 billion Congress has set aside for that purpose.

Broadcasters asked for some tweaks and adds to the list, but the FCC denied-most of them.

Here are some requests the FCC politely declined, plus a couple that were agreed to:

■ The FCC didn’t adopt the National Association of Broadcasters’ suggestion to not assign stations to a phase—there will be a phased transition to new channels, with stations assigned to one of 10 phases—until structural or engineering studies were completed. The FCC’s Media Bureau said the NAB’s “suggested approach could negatively affect the incentive for broadcasters to begin preparing for the transition in earnest.” The bureau did say it would work with stations on an individual basis if “unforeseen circumstances” arise.

■ Stations will be allowed to use temporary channels during the transition but will not be required by the FCC to do so. That is a victory for broadcasters.

■ The bureau affirmed that it will entertain requests to temporarily jointly use channels as a way to speed the transition.

■ Broadcasters opposed the FCC’s allowance of up to 2% interference between stations during the transition, arguing it was at odds with the Spectrum Act’s directive to make “all reasonable efforts” to preserve television stations’ coverage areas and population served. The FCC said it was sticking with that number.

■ NAB had also asked the FCC to cap “the aggregate amount of interference any station may have to accept.” The FCC declined to do so, saying it would provide little benefit and impose “significant costs.” NAB then asked that if a station was going to have more than 5% interference in the phase to which it was assigned, the FCC would make “appropriate adjustments.” The FCC said that in such cases, it will try to find an alternative phase for a station.

■ To minimize disruption, all stations in a DMA will be assigned to one of two phases. NAB had argued for having all stations in a market assigned to the same phase but conceded that was unlikely to pass muster.

■ The FCC said that it will consider weather when calculating phases and completion dates—such as for a station whose phase is in the winter, when tower work can be dangerous.

What Next?

The FCC will release the “Closing and Channel Reassignment Public Notice,” one of its more eagerly anticipated missives, following the assignment phase auction. It will include the following information:

■ Which TV stations won money in their auction. The FCC won’t publish the losers list for two years.
■ How much each station was paid.
■ Whether a station chose to go off the air or move to a different band. (Some stations may be moving from a high VHF channel to a lower one, but that is considered a band move.)
■ Whether stations intend to channel share (one of the options for those staying in the business).
■ Who won spectrum in the forward auction.
■ Which specific frequencies each station was assigned or won in the assignment phase.
■ The deadline by which winning bidders have to apply for licenses for their spectrum.
■ The date by which each station must transition from its old channel.
■ Post-auction channel assignments for winning TV station bidders, though the FCC is already informing the winners privately.