The FCC last week released two public notices, which together detail schedules and procedures to follow to relocate what is likely to be more than 1,200 TV stations to new channel assignments. While receiving high marks for its effort from broadcasters and consultants, many concerns remain. Topping the list of concerns: When to open CP windows; bad assumptions about the work that’s already been done and the effect of delays resulting from weather and zoning; the rippling impact of a delay in one phase on others; and the continued promise of going dark for stations failing to complete the relocation on time.
Concerns remain over the FCC’s television spectrum repack plan, particularly when it comes to scheduling and deadlines, but there appears to be a genuine appreciation among many for the effort the agency has put forth to tackle this mammoth undertaking, say broadcasters and broadcast consultants interviewed for this article.
“I think there are a lot of noble goals that the FCC has set out for what they are trying to do,” says Brett Jenkins, SVP-CTO of Nexstar Media Group. “I appreciate the immensity of the task and the difficult constraints they have to work with.”
The FCC released two public notices (procedures and scheduling) on Jan. 27 that are consolidations of the rules and notices regarding the repack that “make it a little more user friendly” for broadcasters to follow, in the words of one broadcaster speaking on background.
The notices are extensive. The procedures document offers essential details on the construction permit application process; alternate channel and expanded facilities filing windows; international coordination; license relinquishment and channel sharing; and transition expense reimbursement.
The scheduling document details the FCC’s phased transition schedule, which divides the project into 10 transition phases with sequential testing periods and completion dates; STAs and waivers of transition deadlines; temporary joint use of channels; interim facilities; and the confidential letters to notify broadcasters of channel assignments.
While many contacted for this article identified individual details in the two notices that raise red flags, it is transition scheduling, in its various permutations, that is most troublesome.
“The timeline could not be worse for broadcast engineering consultants and vendors,” says Dennis Wallace, managing partner of broadcast consultancy Meintel, Sgrignoli & Wallace in Washington.
If the FCC releases its channel reassignment public notice around March 15, which Wallace anticipates, a significant portion the 90-day filing window spelled out in the scheduling notice will run concurrently with the 2017 NAB Show.
“How are consultants and vendors, who will be tied up with NAB Show activities and meetings with clients and vendors, work out designs and solutions?” he asks.
Broadcasters, particularly those who share large transmission sites and are tenants on the same tower, may have their first opportunity to talk among themselves following the FCC’s mandatory quiet period about design options for combined towers and antennas at the 2017 NAB Show, he adds.
“I strongly urge the FCC to delay the opening of the filing window until after the NAB Show…,” he says, adding that opening of the 90-day construction permit filing window on May 1 would be best.
A core problem with scheduling are presumptions the agency made in its creation, says Jenkins.
He questions how the agency can be so confident in its estimates of the number of transmitters, antennas and other RF components that can be manufactured per month.
“Part of me feels like this is really artificial. The FCC put out numbers to fit a schedule forced upon it by Congress,” he says.
Jenkins is particularly concerned the agency assumes the actual engineering and installation of new RF systems will go more smoothly than experience has proven.
“Imagine I am in Phase 3, and the manufacturer says, ‘I can’t deal with your order because I am dealing with Phase 1 stations right now,’ ” he says.
“Then Phase 1 gets delayed, and we get to Phase 3, and the manufacturer says, ‘Oh, sorry. I know I had you on the schedule here, but we are behind.’”
With more than 1,200 stations likely assigned new channels, it’s difficult to imagine there won’t be many such delays that ripple out affecting other stations, says a broadcast consultant speaking on background.
Wallace agrees there’s good reason to question the assumptions upon which the scheduling is based.
“The FCC states in its public notice that tower structural studies and tower strengthening are assumed to have been completed in the pre-construction period,” says Wallace. “Presumably, for stations in Phases 1 and/or 2, the work has already been completed.”
However, Wallace’s knowledge of client stations indicates otherwise. That’s especially true for stations in the core channels 2 through 36.
“Look, those guys didn’t know they were going to be in the repack until two weeks ago,” he says. “They didn’t know if we were closing at 84 MHz or 60 Mz or having a failed auction.”
Without knowing whether they would be required to relocate, stations have been reluctant to spend money on anything, including structural analyses or tower strengthening, that would not qualify for reimbursement if they were not required to change channel assignments, he adds.
The schedule also has made some general assumptions that don’t account for weather delays, zoning issues and the land use permitting process. It is inevitable these issues will affect when some stations can accomplish specific tasks for their channel relocation, regardless of what the FCC’s schedule assumes, says the consultant on background.
The big danger for broadcasters is that the difference between what the FCC assumes can be accomplished in a given amount of time and what actually happens may push some stations beyond the 180-day extension they can seek for their phase completion date. Any such unfortunate station faces going dark.
That is a big problem, says Rebecca Hanson, SVP of strategy and policy at Sinclair Broadcast Group.
“If the same people who believe that a 39-month transition is possible designed the algorithm that will assign stations to completion phases, I question the assumptions built into that algorithm,” she says.
While acknowledging the possibility of a 180-day extension offering some relief if granted, Hanson says the consequence of going dark could create a disincentive for broadcasters to cooperate in the phased approach envisioned.
Rather than willingly lining up in an orderly queue for technology and services per stations’ phase assignments, the threat of being forced off air could promote an every-man-for-himself attitude.
“Doubling down on the promise [to go dark] is also at odds with the chairman’s and the other commissioners’ promise to Congress that no station will be forced off the air as a result of the repack,” she says.
Hanson is referencing a November 2015 FCC oversight hearing of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology during which then-Chairman Thomas Wheeler assured the committee the agency would be able to “work it out” if delays push completion beyond the “the edge of the table.”
Indeed, the procedure public notice says the agency may authorize use of a temporary channel or temporary joint use of a channel for stations unable to meet their transition deadline. However, it is unclear whether such steps can head off the problem.
The sheer scale of the relocation project and all of its potential ramifications make the task a difficult one for the FCC, says Wallace, who suggests the commission appoint a staff person to serve as a relocation coordinator much in the same way there was a point person for the 2 GHz BAS relocation project.
“This [repack] is a tough problem to solve,” says Wallace. “My business partner Gary Sgrignoli says to me all the time, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’
“I think these [the two public notices] are a good start. It’s a good bite of the elephant, but we have to remember it’s still an elephant.”