It’s looking increasingly likely that Congress may authorize the FCC to hold incentive auctions as soon as this summer as part of debt-ceiling legislation now in the works. NAB says it is “working hard to ensure that spectrum-related provisions would include replication and interference protections for the vast majority of TV stations that will choose to remain in business.”
Congress May Fast-Track Spectrum Auctions
Congress may grant the FCC authority to conduct incentive auctions of broadcast TV spectrum sooner than expected — possibly this summer — by attaching the authorizing language to the critical debt-ceiling bill that appears headed for passage in the next few weeks.
NAB has been closely monitoring the debt-ceiling discussions for months, understanding that it could be the vehicle for the spectrum auctions, says Dennis Wharton, executive vice president for media relations.
At the same time, NAB has also been “working hard to ensure that spectrum-related provisions would include replication and interference protections for the vast majority of TV stations that will choose to remain in business,” Wharton says. “The 46 million viewers who rely exclusively on free and local television for news, entertainment, sports, and life-saving weather information deserve nothing less,” he adds.
Wharton says NAB wants to make sure that if a station is forced to relocate to another channel, that does not result in reduced coverage and hence a loss of potential viewers. “We also don’t want our opportunity to do mobile DTV diminished,” he adds.
MF Global, a Wall Street investment firm, released a report this week saying there is “a rising chance” that the incentive auction authorization could become part of the debt-ceiling bill.
Such authorization would result in the auction of anywhere from 60 MHz to 100 MHz of broadcast TV spectrum in the larger markets within two years and “create a new pipeline of spectrum for the commercial wireless market within 2-4 years,” the report says.
The FCC initiated the spectrum auction effort in 2009, believing that more spectrum was needed for wireless broadband services and that the auction would be a good mechanism for reallocating underutilized TV spectrum to wireless broadband.
Earlier this month, the Senate Commerce Committee adopted a bill (S.911) that would permit the FCC to auction TV spectrum that broadcasters voluntarily give up. To entice broadcasters to volunteer spectrum, the legislation would allow them to take a share of the auction proceeds.
But the bulk of the proceeds would go to reduce the massive federal debt and to help fund a nationwide communications network for first responders.
It is unclear how much money the auctions would generate.
The FCC’s proposed auction of 120 MHz of “underutilized” broadcast TV spectrum will net more than $33 billion for the U.S. Treasury, according to a white paper authored by CTIA-The Wireless Association and Consumer Electronics Association.
Soon, the Congressional Budget Office is expected to release an estimate of the potential revenue from incentive auctions.
In the Senate bill, the NAB was able to secure service protections for broadcasters that choose to retain their spectrum. In addition, the bill would cover any costs associated with moving TV stations to new channels following the auction.
The NAB had hoped that the Senate bill and a companion House measure would not be ready for final passage until next year, and that they would have plenty of time to work in additional safeguards for broadcasters.
But, now, the broadcasters are focused on the debt-ceiling bill and making sure that if it has incentive auction language it also has the full set of protections for broadcasters.
Among other things, the broadcasters are working to make sure the language includes a sunset on the FCC’s authority to repurpose broadcast spectrum; a ban on spectrum fees; provision preventing forced relocation to an inferior channel assignment or diminished service areas; and assurances that stations have enough spectrum to deliver full HDTV and provide new services like multicasting and mobile DTV.
Lawmakers hope to reach a consensus on a debt ceiling bill before the July 4 recess but it is unclear if they can pull that off.
Time is running out, Congress must raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 2, which is when the federal government says it will run out of money.