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?
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.