JESSELL AT LARGE

Delay On Spectrum Models Raises Suspicion

This is getting ridiculous. The FCC was supposed to make public its technical models for its proposed spectrum reallocation that would make its proposed auction plan possible. Broadcasters are still waiting. It keeps promising, but it never delivers and that's straining the commission's credibility. Until the modeling is made public, broadcasters should remain skeptical — and wary — of the anything having to do with incentive auctions. And Congress, too.

From the day in the fall of 2009 when ex-FCC operative Blair Levin first unveiled to broadcasters the FCC plan to recover a huge swath of TV spectrum, they have been more than a little skeptical.

It broad terms, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. The FCC would encourage stations to give up their spectrum by cutting them in on the proceeds of the eventual auction of the spectrum to wireless broadband operators. Participation in the so-called incentive auction would be strictly voluntary, the FCC said.

Weak stations could earn some cash and, if they wanted to, still stay in the business by doubling up on remaining channels. Strong stations could continue as before, although they might have to accept a new channel assignment as the FCC repacked the TV band to aggregate the freed-up spectrum in the top half of the band, just the way the broadband spectrum bidders would want it.

To implement the plan, the FCC would need authority from Congress and had hope to win the acquiescence, if not support, of the broadcast lobby. But the FCC could never overcome the broadcasters’ initial skepticism. In fact, broadcasters are more suspicious today than they were two years ago.

Broadcasters first questioned whether participation in the incentive auction would be truly voluntary. The FCC wanted to take back 120 MHz, some 40% of all broadcast spectrum. What if broadcasters only volunteered 60 MHz? Would the FCC continue to squeeze broadcasters for the other 60 MHz?

Given countless reassurances that they wouldn’t have to participate in the auction if they didn’t want to, broadcasters who had no interest in giving up spectrum began raising more serious concerns. How would they be affected by the shuffling of channel assignments and repacking of the band? Would they be subjected to more interference? Would their coverage area shrink?

BRAND CONNECTIONS

At the NAB Show in April, Post-Newsweek Stations President Alan Frank spoke for many of his peers. The auction puts the entire broadcasting system “at risk” in ways that cannot now be understood, he said. “We just don’t know; nobody knows.”

Frank is correct. Nobody knows because the national broadcasting system comprises more than 1,700 full-power stations and thousands of low-power stations whose location, power and coverage are closely interrelated. Monkey around with the power or location or channel assignment of one station and scores more could be affected in good and bad ways.

Nobody knows. But the FCC has a good idea. Or, it certainly should have.

For the past couple of years, its Office of Engineering and Technology has been grinding away at a complex computer program — the Allotment Optimization Model or AOM — designed to predict what will happen under various scenarios. For instance, the modeling should be able to tell us how many stations would have to move to new channels and how many would be otherwise affected if the FCC somehow managed to recover 120 MHz nationwide. Or 84 MHz. Or 36 MHz. Or whatever.

Such programs have built into them lots of assumptions about how broadcast signals behave in the real world. And those assumptions have a big impact on the predictions the models eventually spit out.

Broadcasters have been eager to get their hands on the model so that they can test (and possibly question) some of its assumptions and simply see how they would do under various scenarios. But the FCC won’t give anybody a peek. It won’t let broadcasters or the public see what it is seeing when it runs the numbers.

We can only speculate why. Perhaps, the modeling shows that under virtually any scenario, bad things will happen to those broadcasters who eschew the auction and hang on to their spectrum — that a big number will lose coverage or power with damaging consequences for their current business as well as their mobile DTV ambitions.

If that’s the case, releasing the models would only give fodder to broadcast lobbyists who are working on Capitol Hill to slow down or derail the incentive auction legislation. I can see it: “Look, congressman, according to the FCC’s very own study, the service of the stations in your district/state will be disrupted and a lot of your constituents will lose over-the-air signals.”

But so be it. The FCC’s job is to give the public and the Congress whatever info it has so the plan can be honestly debated. It’s not to play politics by releasing only that data that supports its goals.

Another possibility is that the FCC just can’t make the model work right. If that’s the case, it should shut down its entire incentive auction initiative. It shouldn’t be fooling around with people’s businesses if it doesn’t know what it’s doing. It should leave it to the next FCC, assuming the next FCC is as interested in shifting spectrum broadcast to broadband.

What’s more, in not releasing the modeling, the FCC is straining its credibility. It keeps promising, but it never delivers. In the original March 2010 National Broadband plan, it says its modeling would be “forthcoming.”

In a June 2010 technical paper, in which it spun out a few spectrum scenarios based on the AOM, it said it wants to be “transparent” in developing the model — its assumptions, capabilities and limitations.” And once it’s completed, it says, “it will make the necessary instructions, problem models and information about access to the data publicly available.”

Asked about the modeling at the NAB Show back in April, FCC Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake acknowledged that it was overdue, but partially because of the FCC’s desire to make it more accurate. Pressed for a date of when it would be released, he said in the “next few months.”

Well, by my calendar, a few months have come and gone. You ask the FCC now about when the modeling might be forthcoming and you don’t even get an answer.

NAB President Gordon Smith voiced the frustration of all broadcasters at a press conference last week. “Many of the facts — the modeling that we think members of Congress ought to have, modeling which we ought to have as well, has simply been withheld from us,” he said.

“Even Congress can’t get information from the FCC. All we are seeking is more transparency. We have but one chance to get this right if we are to preserve future innovation for broadcasters and our viewers,” Smith said.

And that’s really the point. The FCC needs to get all the facts on the table before any incentive auction authorization moves forward on the Hill.

Until the modeling is made public, broadcasters should remain skeptical — and wary — of the anything having to do with incentive auctions. And Congress, too.


 

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be reached at 973-701-1067 or mailto:[email protected]. You can read his other columns here.


Comments (57)

Leave a Reply

Christina Perez says:

August 5, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Harry’s otherwise excellent commentary omits consideration of the key fact that will invalidate any auction scheme that permits stations to reap a financial benefit from the sale of their alloted spectrum: The spectrum is public property, not private property, and the courts surely will rule invaid any scheme that permits private broadcast companies to financially benefit from the sale of the public’s airwaves. Another factor that Harry does not bring up: the apparent fact that a proposed spectrum auction is a subterfuge for the dismantling of free, unniversal, over the air television broadcasting in America, a spectrum grab by broadband interests (and covertly, by homeland-military-intel units of government that seek to utilize broadcast spectrum for electromagnetic domestic weapons systems). http://nowpublic.com/world/u-s-silently-tortures-americans-cell-tower-microwave-weapon

Matthew Craft & David K. Randall says:

August 5, 2011 at 4:31 pm

The spectrum debate is (yet another?) case where all parties are dead certain of their views based on very few facts. Both the CEA and NAB have taken extreme positions that will make constructive compromise harder to achieve. It is equally un-helpful to sound alarms about a “spectrum crisis” that may or may someday not occur or to flatly deny that mobile devices need more spectrum. To postulate that consumers all want to receive their video via individual streams is to embrace a worst case scenario that rewards inefficiency. We should all be working together to combine and exploit the respective strengths of broadcasting and broadband, not choosing between them.

    Peter Grewar says:

    August 5, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    Truthfully, I don’t see the NAB’s position as being at all extreme — in fact, it impresses me as being very moderate in the sense that they are willing to consider stations voluntarily giving up their spectrum for broadband uses — which would still encroach on the broadcast bands. And considering that broadcast TV just gave up 18 channels in 2009 as part of the digital transition, it’s rather premature for the FCC to come back this soon for more.

Matthew Craft & David K. Randall says:

August 5, 2011 at 4:34 pm

I have to admit, PhillyPhlash, I hadn’t considered the American intelligence community’s evil scheme to use the broadcast spectrum as an electromagnetic weapon. I hope you’re still wearing your tinfoil hat to keep you safe.

    Christina Perez says:

    August 5, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    Mr. Greenwald, you obviously are aware that your comment is rude and deprecating, but apparently you are unaware of just how uninformed you are. Why don’t you read my article, and learn?

    Matthew Craft & David K. Randall says:

    August 6, 2011 at 2:23 am

    Actually I thought my comment was pretty funny and was intended as gentle teasing. If I wanted to be rude and deprecating it would have been unmistakeable. Besides, America’s current muddled spectrum policy amounts to a weapons system we’ve pointed at ourselves.

ken frierson says:

August 5, 2011 at 4:45 pm

If the administration’s mishandling of the debt crisis is any indication of the future, then take a very deep breath and ultimately we shall know our fate.

    Gene Johnson says:

    August 5, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    Congress mishandled the debt crisis far, far more than did the “administration,” and it is Congress that has to pass legislation that will authorize the spectrum auctions and allocation of the proceeds, and any other requirements imposed on the FCC as it implements the program. It is not the administration, although it will undoubtedly be involved in the process. Also, remember that the FCC is an “independent” agency. While it would be naive to think the administration did not have some amount of influence in FCC decisions, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is controlling the FCC’s decision making process. Indeed, many decisions are influenced and modified to accommodate the minority views on the Commission, either in an effort to achieve consensus or, believe it or not, because they frequently can improve the overall result.

laurie friedman says:

August 5, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Why, oh why, didn’t the FCC think far enough ahead to have made these changes at the same time as they asked stations to make changes relative to the analog-to-digital conversion? Then stations would only have had ONE change in frequency/transmitter/antenna/etc. for which to pay, and the public would have been less confused with only one change. Oh, excuse me … who could ever expect the government to THINK? Too bad they don’t have some technical requirements for membership on the FCC …

    Warren Harmon says:

    August 5, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    Right On!

    charles spencer says:

    August 5, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    Actually, there is something close – there is a bill in Congress that authorizes each Commissioner to have an engineer on their advisory staff. Write your Congressperson and suggest their support!

    Also, just to remember, the DTV channel allocations came out in the late 90’s – WAY before we had smartphones/tablets/WiFi at the level we do now. Clearly, it’s a tough problem.

Ellen Samrock says:

August 5, 2011 at 5:17 pm

In one of his warm and fuzzy ‘win-win-win’ speeches to broadcasters, Genachowski flat out said that the FCC doesn’t need Congressional approval to repack the TV band. And that makes this whole issue even more scary. Imagine an FCC so intent on carrying out the objectives of the NBP that it initiates such a repacking scheme, sweeping aside any protests from Congress and broadcasters and without ever showing an AOM or spectrum inventory. Seems inconceivable but I have a gut feeling that this FCC under Genachowski could very well do it. The guy has been barnstorming the country lately, yammering about the need for more spectrum to any who would listen, promising thousands of jobs and a chicken in every pot. It is a calculated effort to minimize any obstacles to incentive auctions by seeking public support for it. As Harry makes plain, not only should broadcasters of all descriptions be suspicious about what’s going on here but continually push back any efforts by the FCC chairman to steamroll through any plan to reclaim spectrum without our full participation.

    Warren Harmon says:

    August 5, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    Well, Congress pulled FCC funding for the theft of L-Band spectrum by LightSquared’s fodder with the FCC and oBAMa cronies. Why can’t Congress do the same for our DTV, and remember, we all know the UHF spectrum is what we need for stealthy DTV, we don’t need to be giving it away to the broadband guys just because they want to steal it. I say put them in the VHF band so they can “Innovate”.

Dave Chumley says:

August 6, 2011 at 7:46 am

Maybe the delay is because the Office of Engineering Incompetence finally realizes that their propagation model for HDTV/SFN/White Spaces and lately LightSquare, isn’t applicable to the real world. In that case the OET designation would apply.

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