After providing the opening bid prices for TV stations in the broadcast incentive auction two weeks ago, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said, “For all practical purposes, we’ve fired the starting gun.” Yes, but the race isn’t so much a sprint as a high hurdles contest, and a few remain before the home stretch begins March 29, when broadcasters have to commit to the auction.
There remain pending lawsuits, petitions to reconsider FCC decisions and several proceedings that need to be completed, including key proposals to reserve spectrum for unlicensed devices.
“There are still a number of outstanding issues,” said Rick Kaplan, National Association of Broadcasters spectrum point person and general counsel.
Here are the main pieces of the puzzle yet to be put into place.
Vacant channel. Or as Kaplan called it, the “not-so-vacant channel.”
The FCC has proposed to reserve the last channel in each market for unlicensed device use. That means after the auction and repack, any TV market with vacant channels will have to reserve one channel for unlicensed “white spaces” devices.
The proposal has been characterized as a “third rail” issue for many broadcasters. Kaplan calls the vacant channel proposal egregious and a land-grab by Google and Microsoft that will dissuade them from participating in the auction—i.e., why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free (as it were)?
It also further shrinks the broadcast band, leaving less room for new, diverse channels, and also less room for low-powers already without protection, Kaplan suggested, adding that it makes it harder to move to a new ATSC-3 transmission standard.
The comment deadline on the proposal was last week, after which the FCC will then have to vote on an order.
Duplex Gap. At issue is the FCC’s decision to place some TV stations in the wireless band’s duplex gap after the incentive auction. This is the buffer between wireless uplink and downlink spectrum and is part of the FCC’s effort to clear as much contiguous spectrum as possible for wireless.
The NAB has petitioned the FCC to reconsider that decision.
Auction procedures. The NAB has also asked the FCC to reconsider the degree to which the commission will allow impairments— or interference—nationwide between TV stations and wireless carriers in its effort to clear the maximum amount of spectrum. That will affect the number of stations that can be placed in the wireless band. That is part of the same duplex gap recon petition.
LPTVs and Translators. The FCC has yet to vote on its proposal to mitigate the impact of the incentive auction on low-power TV’s and translators. They need help because those stations are not protected in the auction repack, and can be displaced or shuttered. Wheeler has promised to do what he can to help, given that the statute does not provide any protections for them. In addition, a number of legislators have weighed in, saying they did not mean for low-powers and translators, which often serve rural populations, to be hung out to dry, and have suggested they could clarify that in new legislation.
FED’S TURN TO TURN OVER SPECTRUM
Having wrung out pretty much all the spectrum it can from broadcasters in the DTV transition and its plans for the upcoming broadcast incentive auction, the government is now turning on its own, so to speak, to gain even more.
The omnibus budget bill getting support from both sides of Congress last week as a way to avoid a government shutdown includes the Spectrum Pipeline Act of 2015 as one of its provisions. The bill would reallocate and auction federal spectrum—the Department of Defense, for example—for non-federal use or shared use by federal and non-federal users, or a combination of those.
The bill directs the Secretary of Commerce to submit a report to the President and the FCC identifying 30 MHz in bands of at least 10 MHz of contiguous frequencies for such reallocation.
The President is then directed to withdraw or modify the licenses of federal spectrum holders, after which the FCC will designate it for non federalor shared use.
The auction would have to begin by July 1, 2024.