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.
FCC Begins Plan To Take Back TV Spectrum
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.
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.