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FCC Begins Plan To Take Back TV Spectrum

Next Tuesday, Nov. 30, the FCC will launch its rulemaking aimed at freeing up broadcast spectrum through repacking of the band and channel sharing. It will look for ways to improve the VHF band, suggesting that the FCC intends to drive more stations into the band as part of the repacking scheme.

Last March, as part of its massive National Broadband Plan for expanding the broadband infrastructure in the U.S., the FCC proposed recovering 40% of broadcast  TV spectrum — 120 MHz of 300 MHz — so that it could make it available for what it believes is the higher purpose of sustaining smart phones, iPads and other broadband mobile uses.

To that end, the agency has teed up a rulemaking next Tuesday (Nov. 30) that proposes first steps toward freeing up broadcast spectrum through repacking of the band and channel sharing, according to agency and industry sources.

The rulemaking stops short of actually proposing a comprehensive repacking scheme, whereby the FCC would squeeze out as much as 36 MHz out of the broadcast band by shifting channel assignments and trimming power and coverage of stations.

However, the proceeding looks for ways of improving the much maligned VHF band (chs. 2-13) for broadcasting, suggesting that the FCC intends to drive more stations into the band as part of the repacking scheme. UHF channels, chs. 14 to 51, are generally considered better for broadcasting and broadband.

In particular, the FCC rulemaking will explore VHF indoor antenna performance standards and seek suggestions for reducing noise in the VHF band.

The FCC expects to recover the most broadcast spectrum by encouraging channel sharing, in which stations would voluntarily double up (or even triple up) on a single 6 MHz TV channel. The rulemaking proposes extending must-carry and retransmission consent rights to channel sharers.

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The rulemaking asks for input on how the FCC might handle a co-sharing situation where one broadcaster opts to negotiate retrains fees and the other station goes for must carry.

The rulemaking also proposes that channel sharers have the same public interest and programming obligations as they now do, and that one sharer would not be responsible for FCC rules violations by others on the same channel.

The real inducement for channel sharing is incentive auctions, which would entitle broadcasters to a cut of the proceeds from the auctioning of spectrum that they give up. But authorizing such auctions will take an act of Congress. And while bills have been introduced in the House and Senate with White House backing, their prospects are unclear.

The rulemaking also proposes to make wireless broadband a “co-primary use” of TV spectrum, entitled to the same interference protection as broadcast.

According to one FCC official, the proposal would, if adopted, facilitate overlay auctions, an alternative approach to channel sharing and incentive auctions.

Under that approach, says an agency technical paper on the broadband plan, “The FCC would divide the broadcast TV bands into large, contiguous blocks and auction all or a portion of those blocks as overlay licenses with flexible use.’’

The overlay license holders, the wireless broadband provider, would then negotiate with broadcasters to clear the band.

“The downside of this type of auction is that incumbents may choose never to clear the band or may take a very long time to negotiate a clearing,’’ says the FCC paper.

Furthermore, overlay auctions may not generate as much profit as an incentive auction, the paper says. “Using overlay licenses as a means to clear broadcast TV spectrum introduces uncertainty and higher bargaining and clearing costs.”

Recovering as much broadcast spectrum as possible for broadband has been a primary goal for FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who believes that wireless broadband providers will soon be unable to meet the rising demand for service due to a lack of spectrum.

“The chairman has made no bones about it, he wants broadcasters out of the UHF band,” says one TV industry source.

Most broadcasters have been resistant to the FCC take-back plan ever since it was first floated more than a year ago. They believe that giving up spectrum, particularly in the UHF band, will curtail their ability to provide multicasting and mobile services. And they are highly skeptical of promises of riches from incentive auctions.

Many argue that a single 6 MHz is not enough spectrum for two HD services and mobile services. “This channel sharing business isn’t going to work,” says one broadcast lawyer. “The only way it would work is if you give away your future and you say I am not going to be interested in multicasting or digital or anything else and all a station does is one stream.”

Broadcasters are particularly wary of any repacking scheme that forces more stations into the VHF band. Since transitioning to digital in June 2009, broadcasters have discovered that the digital VHF signals do not propagate well and are vastly inferior to UHF signals for planned mobile services.

Broadcast TV engineers argue that even if VHF power were increased 100 times, signals would still not overcome all the noise in the band and the limitations of the receive antennas.

“There’s not going to be a lot of appetite for moving to the low VHF band,” says a broadcast industry source. “There’s going to be a lot of push back on attempts by the FCC to say if we increase power, than low V is just as good as high V and high V is as good as UHF. I don’t think that’s bait that the industry is going to take.”

Broadcasters are taking little solace in the fact that the rulemaking does not detail a channel repacking scheme. If Genachowski can muster the votes, they say, he could go beyond the scope of the original rulemaking and order repacking at the end of the proceeding. The FCC does not need congressional authority to reshape the band in any way it likes.

The FCC has been working on various repacking schemes, what it calls “new TV allotment optimization models,” but it has yet to release any for review by the public and by broadcasters.

“This is where the rubber hits the road,’’ says one FCC insider.


Comments (20)

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Barry Newman says:

November 24, 2010 at 9:01 am

A lot of the resistance to VHF allocations comes from one simple fact…TV stations are simply not being allowed enough ERP. We’ve learned that when the stations went digital, the only way they could keep their previous analog coverage contours intact, was to allow them to operate with the same ERP as their old visual signal. Put them back to 100 kW max for channels 2-6, 316 kW channels 7-13 and whatever is needed on UHF (perhaps 3 to 5 megawatts) and you’ll find a lot of the coverage problems go away. This could be a simple operation–simply tell the old heritage V’s to go back to their old channels, take the U’s and put them either in available holes on VHF or in a system where they[‘re at least 160 miles apart from their closest co-channel neighbor, and space them every two channels in a market instead of every six–you might even get away with assigning adjacent channels in the same market on both VHF and UHF in the digital age in a way you could never do with analog. Do that and you’ve cleared the TV band all the way down to channel 40, leaving the whole spectrum from Ch. 41 to ch. 69 available for broadband wireless. If you do it right you may even be able to clear it all the way down to 600 mHz (just above channel 35). I’d be shocked if that doesn’t free up more than enough room for low power WiFi and other broadband serviices above 600 mHz, where it belongs anyway…

John Stelzer says:

November 24, 2010 at 9:18 am

The theme implicit in the FCC papers to date is that OTA television broadcasting was, is now, and always will be a point-to-multipoint service delivering “appointment” content to consumers with rooftop antennas. With those 1950s blinders in place, restoration of LVHF looks very attractive and practical. But, as radio discovered in the 1950s, the future of OTA television broadcasting is point-to-mobile, for which the broadcast model is the most efficient delivery method (though we may debate “big stick” vs. distributed transmission, coding and modulation schemes, etc.). LVHF can’t be received usefully by current-day mobile devices because of basic electromagnetic wave physics. UHF is clearly the place to be for mobile TV, with HVHF usable to a limited degree. The argument should not be who is more “deserving” of spectrum, but rather what is the optimal mix of service models to provide reliable service to consumers. Many broadcasters understand their potential to take one-to-many streaming loads off the switched IP networks and thereby facilitate spectral and network efficiency. Some of the same themes have been heard lately here and there among “wireless broadband” folks. The FCC needs to take off its blinders.

    Matthew Castonguay says:

    November 29, 2010 at 10:45 am

    You’re right, and even the telco people know this. But if you were the FCC chairman, so publicly/dogmatically committed to this from the moment it first came up, how would you back down gracefully now? Nope, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes!

Paul Bremer says:

November 24, 2010 at 10:00 am

So, let’s think about this! Broadcasters spend an inordinate amount of money; substantive in smaller DMA’s to make the transition to Digital. All of this to accommodate freeing up spectrum for the Government; a nice quid pro quo. Now the Government decides it will change the rules. The fact is there is little respect for over the air broadcasters. No other entity provides the local news, emergency information, community support, and cohesive bonding within local markets. The FCC and members of Congress don’t get it: “It Local Stupid”. But for politicians and a lot of local officials they would love to see Local TV go away. They can pull off their crooked little schemes; skim money from contractors and lobbyists; raise taxes; waste money; reward themselves with huge pay and benefits. Too many public sector people see local TV and Newspapers (local Radio deserves some mention in a few markets where some owners get being local has value) as a barrier to what ‘they want to do’. Forget about the People. It’s always been about government, power, control, and self protection and reward. The public is a giant money machine for them to tap, use, abuse as they see fit. Republicans, Democrats, Independents; you see bad behavior everywhere and it is getting worse. So, why should we expect the FCC or Congress to do anything but abuse spectrum use by broadcasters. Boy, they sure come to the aid of Public Broadcasting with funding and protection. Any surprise?

William Cummings says:

November 24, 2010 at 10:06 am

Broadcasters need to publicize and reinforce the recent proposals from Verizon and others to begin broadcasting their services in their current bands. The wireless carriers have finally realized that trying to provide individual point-to-point video streams to millions of users just isn’t band efficient or resource smart. Giving them more and more bandwidth isn’t going to help that. Broadcasters need to point out that if broadcasting is so undervalued, why are the vaunted wireless giants proposing moving to that model now as if they invented the whole idea? Broadcasters have been providing that type of service for more than 70 years.

Gregg Palermo says:

November 24, 2010 at 11:31 am

Verizon and other wireless providers have something that broadcasters do not have: customers using antennas. 100 percent of Verizon’s customers use antenna reception, but only 9 or 10 percent of broadcast viewers still use antenna reception. To an outsider, the solution is obvious: Remove broadcasters from the distribution business. Let them operate their local news stations and serve the public with whatever must-carry they can legally muster. Maybe the government (and Verizon) need to subsidize a barebones lifeline service to the last 9 percent of antenna users via wire or satellite. And if anyone is to take advantage of point-to-many, let it be those who presently (not historically) make the most efficient of their airwaves. That would be the point-to-point folks, not the point-to-few broadcasters.

    mike tomasino says:

    November 24, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Rustbelt, More and more people are using antennas to get digital broadcast TV. This is especially pronounced among “20-something Techy kids.” If the wireless and cable industries don’t get this spectrum grab through now, there won’t be anyone left watching your precious cable. Some of us don’t want to have to pay for every service we have.

Dave Chumley says:

November 24, 2010 at 11:36 am

Only after you acquire the land you can apply for the zoning variance to avoid blight…

james rini says:

November 24, 2010 at 11:46 am

The public value of over the air broadcast is being cast aside. In times of Homeland Security, disaster, natural or otherwise, cable, internet, or satellite transmission will be unavailable due to loss of comercial power, or loss of connectivity such as that occurs during a crisis including hurrican, flood, etc. Most of the wireless and cable providers DO NOT have sustained emergency power (and are not required), whereas most broadcast facilities can stand on their own with generators and local origination of some sort. How quickly we forget that Broadcasters kept the Katrina Victims informed. Other forms of “normal” links non-broadcast were lost for days and weeks. Is our Government and Homeland Security that short sighted that they do not consider broadcasters a criticle service in the public interest? There is definately a lack of planning and thinking this one through on behalf of our Government. First we make it difficult for the Public to receive the digital TV signal using an outdated technology and now the proposed idea of throwing broadcasters to VHF that has lousy signal transmission characteristics and Wal-Mart antennas that are UHF only? The public is definately getting the short end.

Teri Green says:

November 24, 2010 at 12:45 pm

I live in Chicago and lost all my TV reception when digital came about. The fact that I got 16 channels in analog all very clear with rabbit ears and a loop for UHF. I live 3 miles NW of Willis (Sears) Tower and with a silver sensor antenna, I get ZERO TV stations. The power is too weak to get into Chicago’s dense buildings. Thousands lost TV but no one cared. VHF is a joke. I can go to a park with my laptop and built in TV tuner. With my silver sensor I point it directly at the Willis Tower a mile away and pick up all the UHF clearly, but I can’t get WBBM on VHF 12, even with rabbit ears only ONE MILE from the tallest building in the USA. VHF isn’t working like it should. I don’t worry much about HDTV, I want ANY TV, SDTV would be enough. I say if they must repackage, make OTA SDTV and let people who want HDTV pay for it, via cable or dishes. At least this way, us poor folk who can’t afford cable will get some kind of TV signal for free. The whole conversion to DTV was a mess anyway. I mean anyone with an ounce of brains could see it should’ve been done market by market. Start with NYC and work down. Don’t convert the next market till the prior market has the bugs worked out of it. But that would be too much like right.

    mike tomasino says:

    November 24, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Speak for yourself Eric. Some of us have great reception and live 49 miles from the towers. If you can’t get reception now you aren’t going to get it if it goes to SD only. I don’t want to be forced to pay for HD. I don’t live in a large city with large buildings, so I don’t know about your particular reception problems, but don’t project your personnal problems onto the rest of us. I get great reception from both UHF and high VHF, even at 49 miles. I know of people who receive Denver UHF in Cheyenne, WY (100 miles away). Like I say, your reception problems are your own problems, don’t project that onto the rest of America where digital rocks. I’m sure they have more to do with multi-path from the buildings, and if you used a directional antenna your problems could be fixed. One guy in Dallas built a faraday cage around his antenna. Didn’t look pretty, but it worked.

    Mel Frerking says:

    November 24, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Sounds like a mulipath problem. Or, in the case of the park you are too close to the tower and under the beam. Could also be they need to transmitt at a higher power.

    mike tomasino says:

    November 24, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    At three miles power shouldn’t be an issue, but multi-path certainly is, and being below the beam has a real possiblity. Eric, try mounting an antenna in the back of a grounded metal trash can and point it toward the towers. It should kill all signals but the main one.

Brian Harris says:

November 24, 2010 at 11:29 pm

This may be heresy to broadcasters but as a retired DOE for a network affiliate here are my thoughts: The OTA digital scheme was a huge mistake! We should have pooled our resources and provided our local signals via satellite. We would have covered many more households than we do with OTA. Not much different than Dish and DIRECT do now with local into local. In fact, by 2012, all local stations will be available as local into local so the only remaining problem is to figure out how the government pays Dish or DIRECT for those households that only want their local stations or those households that can’t afford anything else. This frees up the entire spectrum; no Low Band/High Band/UHF propagation issues (no transmitters, antennas, towers, or STL’s to maintain either). It may end up being cheaper than the “incentive” plan, no re-packing issues, and we get to keep our local broadcasts. Yes, we have to give up mobile or find a way to partner with others to be the programming source.

    Brian Walshe says:

    November 26, 2010 at 9:15 am

    And when your market’s Local into Local transponder fails?

    The FCC is again being allowed to be short-sighted by a populace that doesn’t understand the stakes, allows “marketplace is best” thinking to be the premise that Congress fosters, and which allows what I’ll call “spectrum redevelopment” to bring in the bulldozers at the behest of the Telcom lobbyists.

    It’s not fair to the broadcasters who’ve invested quite a bit in making the DTV switch. It’s not good for me as a consumer, and it’s ultimately not good for the country. Let’s auction off our National Parks, why don’t we?

    Then how much will it cost to visit Yellowstone or Yosemite?

Ben Gao says:

November 29, 2010 at 9:40 am

I am totally opposed to doubling or tripling-up FREE (HD) TV stations at the expense of “pay to play” broadband. Here we spent over 10 years and billions of dollars to get the public to buy new HDTV sets with 1080 resoluation; now you want to triple-up the service so that consumers have 3 channels of 480 video with horrible artifacts? Forget about sports coverage. This totally ruins the idea of HDTV and their HD-2 services. I AM violently opposed to ‘stealing’ HDTV spectrum so that the cellphone companies can make trillions from the sales of their services. I DO AGREE with Bob Smith – allow the old ERP levels for TV channels 2-6 and channels 7-13 – let them go back to their old levels, an return to their heritage channel assignments WITH the higher ERP. Move a couple of UHF back to their old frequencies (or lower) and you would have the upper UHF available – IF you really believe that broadband – using a one-to-one ratio – instead of broadcasting – using a one-to-unlimited receivers method – is better use of spectrum – I don’t.

Cranky Ole Man says:

November 29, 2010 at 2:54 pm

This is what happens when (a) there are no experienced RF engineers left at the FCC, and (b) Gen X’ers who grew up on cable TV are running the show. Channels 2-6 should never be used for television of any kind – there are just too many problems with impulse noise, E-skip, and the wavelengths are so long that mobile reception is impractical. Channels 7 -13 suffer somewhat less from noise, but still get clobbered in city environments. And again, the wavelengths are still too long for portable/mobile reception. The FCC shouldn’t have to look outwards to get knowledgeable advice about ‘improving’ VHF TV reception – that expertise used to be available in-house. (But what can you expect of an agency that green-lighted the use of white space devices after two rounds of failures in field testing by the OET?) As for sharing bits in a stream, that would work fine for SD-only stations who might need 3-4 MB/s at most per channel. But it will NOT work for 1080i HD, which is tough to compress in MPEG2. These proposals (and the FCC chairman’s insistence on moving ahead with this proposal) speak to little-to-no understanding of RF and digital compression – just bureaucrats pushing an agenda. “Don’t confuse me with facts!”

Maybe Congress can’t stop the FCC from re-arranging spectrum allocations. But Congress can cut back on FCC funding to express their disapproval.

    mike tomasino says:

    November 29, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    Let’s not forget that Congress created the FCC, and Congress can change the law anytime they want. The NTIA identified 2080 MHz that could be reallocated for wireless broadband other than the proposed 120 MHz from broadcasting. That is over 4 times what the NBP calls for! 616 MHz of that is controlled by the Federal Government. It is about time for broadcasters to start standing up for themselves and the American consumer!!!

    Christina Perez says:

    November 30, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    That’s right. The American public will NEVER stand for a second-class “shared” single channel that does not offer OTA viewers full high-definition, multi (digi)channel service. It is time for the broadcast industry to raise the warning flag about the WAR ON FREE OVER-THE-AIR TV. Because that’s what this is — a brazen attempt to destroy the OTA business model, just as stations, for the first time since the inception, have the ability to broadcast multiple channels. Genchowski and his broadband lobbyists are INFORMATION FASCISTS. They seek to use the power of the State to enrich their cronies, and, upon their retirements from what is supposed to be “public service,” themselves. They are rogues who betray the public trust — and they need to be called out for what they are.

    Dave Chumley says:

    November 30, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    I said it before. The FCC’s OET is in reality the Office of Engineering Incompetence. Look back at the entire HDTV proceedings.


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