JESSELL AT LARGE

Time For FCC To Divulge TV Repacking Plan

While the FCC hopes to take back some of TV's valuable space by tempting broadcasters to voluntarily put it up for auction, it's also threatening to get some by repacking the band. But what's most galling is that it still hasn't released its repacking models that spell out exactly what it wants to do. They've been "forthcoming" since March.

The FCC took its first steps this week toward its oft-stated goal of snatching a big hunk of spectrum away from broadcasting so that it can sell it at auction to others for wireless broadband, which it feels is a superior use in that it can conquer disease, make American school kids smarter than all their counterparts in India and China who all sit in the front row and pay attention and insure a sharply rising Dow Jones Industrial Average for the next 1,000 years. It’s hard to compete with all that, even if you have Glee on your schedule.

The FCC rulemaking didn’t actually propose moving any spectrum. Rather, it set the stage for channel sharing and band repacking, the mechanisms the FCC hopes to use to snag 40% of the TV spectrum for auctioning.

The FCC is figuring that it can recover most of the 120 MHz it wants through voluntary channel sharing, if Congress will agree to cut broadcasters in on the eventual auction proceeds. As an extra incentive, the rulemaking proposes extending must-carry and retransmission consent to broadcasters who double up on the channels.

But the FCC also intends to squeeze out some spectrum by what commoners call repacking the band and what the bureaucrats at the agency are now calling “band optimization.” By whatever name, it means moving stations around in the band and perhaps trimming their power and coverage.

Repacking particularly worries broadcasters because the FCC could go ahead and do it without waiting for Congress to act or getting the buy-in of broadcasters. Twiddling with power levels and interference protections of licensees is what the FCC does.

Repacking is what NAB President Gordon Smith was talking about in his statement following the FCC adoption of the rulemaking when he said the trade group would oppose “government-mandated signal strength degradations or limitations.”

BRAND CONNECTIONS

The broadcasters’ angst about repacking was heightened by that portion of the rulemaking that seeks improvement in the VHF band. If UHF is beachfront, VHF is that vacant inner city lot next to the crack house.

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Some fear that the FCC wants to fix up the band so that it can move some stations back into it, sort of like one those misguided 1960s urban renewal projects.

There’s not a TV station in America that wants to operate in the VHF band anymore, particularly the low-V band. It’s lousy for conventional broadcasting, terrible for mobile DTV.

Those that moved to the UHF band in the transition are happy to be there. Those who remain in the VHF band through bad luck or judgment are desperate to get out.

But what exactly is the FCC repacking plan? How might it affect markets? Individual stations?

Nobody really knows because the FCC has yet to release any of its repacking models, tentative blueprints for reordering the broadcasting world just as it did when the industry went from analog to digital.

The FCC first promised the models way back in March, when it released the voluminous National Broadband Plan, its grand strategy for enhancing wireless broadband as the be all and end all. Footnote 82 on the spectrum chapter says they would be “forthcoming.”

Eight months later, and the models have not yet forthcome, even though I and broadcast lobbyists and lawyers have been inquiring about them.

The FCC teased us all again in this week’s rulemaking, saying the models would be “completed and validated” and, I presume, released for public inspection, “in the near future.”

I can understand the FCC reluctance. Once those models get circulated, the repacking plan suddenly becomes real for broadcasters. They will be able to see just how they would be affected if the models are implemented. And when I say affected, I mean negatively affected. Remember, this exercise is meant to recover spectrum, not improve the broadcast service. Once the models are on the street, the shooting will begin.

By the way, in the preamble of its rulemaking, the FCC sort of fessed up that its spectrum recovery plans are not be entirely voluntary. It says the rulemaking is consistent with its goal of repurposing 120 MHz “through, in part, voluntary contributions of spectrum to an auction process.” It leaves you wondering what the other “part” is.

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In any event, The FCC needs to stop screwing around and release the models so we can all see what it’s talking about.

To the FCC staff, the models must seem like an academic exercise. How can we tweak the many power and interference variables to yield the greatest possible spectrum surplus?

But to the broadcasters, the models cut to their real-world ability to deliver good pictures and sound to homes and to mobile devices, their ability to compete in the digital age, their very livelihoods.

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N.B.: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s rhetoric concerning broadcasting is becoming more than a little annoying. A few weeks ago in a speech, he said broadcasting, because of its grip on primo spectrum, had become an “obstacle” to the kind of communications infrastructure that our great nation deserves.

This week, at the open FCC meeting, he portrayed broadcasting as a train pulling a bunch of empty boxcars — that is, allowing some of its digital capacity to go unused. The metaphor is grossly unfair. He’s judging broadcasting based on what’s happening today and purposely ignoring what’s going to happen next.

For the past few years, broadcasters have been working steadily to develop a mobile DTV service. I expect that by this time next year, NBC and Fox O&Os and affiliates across the country will be offering a mobile service with network programming. If the service takes off as I believe it will, and the other networks will join in, there will be no empty boxcars.


 

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. You may contact him at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read his other columns here.


Comments (1)

Leave a Reply

Ben Gao says:

December 6, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Low Band VHF = worthless for HDTV. Give it to the FM music band. Cellphone companies already have 120MHz of TV spectrum; that’s enough, now go away. FCC – hire engineers, not lawyers. Junk HDTV on Ch2-6. Give HDTV on ch7-13 another 9dB of signal and call it a day.


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