Broadcasters are anxiously awaiting details of the FCC’s plans for the spectrum auctions and resulting TV band repacking. FCC Chairman Wheeler last month laid out the schedule leading up to the auctions in mid-2015. But he did not offer a timeline for the post-auction channel switching, a process that could involve many stations and extend into 2020.
Spectrum Repacking Faces Tricky Timeline
Incoming FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s decision to postpone the incentive auction of TV spectrum till mid-2015 means that, if the auction is successful, some broadcasters may still be climbing towers, erecting new antennas and moving to new channels well into 2020.
Writing on the FCC blog on Dec. 6, Wheeler says the one-year delay would give the agency more time to make “fact-based policy decisions” and “exhaustively test the operating system and the software” required to ensure a smooth auction and repacking process.
The FCC chairman says the plan is to propose recommendations — “the rules of the road” — early this year and adopt them in the spring. At the same time, he says, the FCC will develop procedures for how the auction will be conducted and put those out for comment in the second half of this year.
After digesting the comments and adopting the procedures, presumably late this year or in early 2015, the FCC will make sure they work. “[W]e will check and recheck the auction software and system components against the auction requirements, and under a variety of scenarios replicating real-life conditions.” This phase will include several software demonstration and a mock auction, Wheeler says.
If all systems are go, the FCC will be set to conduct the auction in the middle of 2015 as Wheeler promised.
Wheeler’s blog did not offer a timeline for the post-auction repack of the TV band, in which many of the broadcasters who chose not to sell their spectrum will have to move to new channels, a process that could involve installation of new antennas and other transmission gear.
The FCC last week announced that it would provide more details about the timeline for the auction and repack at the agency’s open meeting on Jan. 30.
In the meantime, broadcasters and other interested parties have been extrapolating their own schedules, which extend, in some cases, into 2020.
All the post-auction schedules are based on the assumption that the auction will be a success — that enough TV stations will come forward and offer their spectrum for cash in the reverse auction so that the FCC will have enough spectrum to sell in the forward auction to wireless carriers.
How much spectrum is “enough” is not yet clear. The FCC’s original goal was to recover up to 120 MHz.
The key post-auction moment for broadcasters will come when the FCC issues its new table of allotments containing the new channel assignments for the broadcasters choosing to remain on air. The table is in essence the plan for the repacking of the TV band, in which the FCC will aggregate all the recovered spectrum in the upper part of the TV band and pack the remaining broadcasters in the lower part.
Rick Kaplan, NAB EVP of strategic planning, envisions the FCC completing its new channel assignments by about Oct. 1, 2015. Kaplan’s scenario assumes that the FCC will begin the action on June 1 and that it will take three months to complete. Tack on another month for the FCC to produce the new table of allotment
Jay Adrick, an independent broadcast technology consultant and former Harris executive, does not believe the process will move that quickly. Because of the complexity of the issues, the FCC will not be able to get out its new channel assignments until late 2016, he says. Actual channel relocation therefore would be unlikely to begin until 2017.
“Jay’s timeline is completely rational,” says Kaplan. “However, there will be a lot of pressure from the wireless industry to push the process along faster. In fact, it is likely to be a matter of months, not a year and a half.”
While the delay gives the FCC more time to get the auction and repacking process right, it does nothing to address a major challenge likely to face broadcasters following the auction: completing the extensive work involved in deploying new antennas, transmitters, waveguide and all of the other components needed to relocate TV stations to new channels.
The law authorizing the incentive auction mandates that the FCC set aside $1.75 billion from the auction of the spectrum to wireless carriers to reimburse broadcasters’ relocation expenses. To qualify for the reimbursement, the relocation work must be completed within three years from the conclusion of the auction or about October 2018.
That could be a tall order if the auction is held in mid 2015 and the final table of allotment doesn’t emerge until late 2016 as Adrick predicts. Broadcasters would have only a year and a half to relocate.
No one can know until the completion of the auction how many stations will be involved in the repack, Adrick says. But what is known is that there is a finite number of antennas that can be moved in that amount of time.
“There are 14 tower crews in the United States,” Adrick says. “The average time to put up a temporary antenna, take down the main antenna, put up a new antenna and pull down the temporary antenna is five weeks.”
Working without stop, he says, the crews could move around 220 antennas in one-and-a-half years or 440 in three years, he says.
And some of the crews may go out of business in the next year or so for lack of work, he says. In anticipation of the auction-related work, he says, stations have been putting off all but the most essential tower work.
This de facto freeze on tower work was a major factor in SPX Corp.’s decision to shut down Dielectric, a leading manufacturer of antennas and other broadcast transmission equipment. Fortunately for broadcasters, Sinclair Broadcast Group saved the company by acquiring it last year.
Because moving hundreds of stations is time-consuming and because there is no guarantee that the table of allotments will follow on the heels of the auction, broadcasters have been agitating for more time. They want policymakers to either extend the three-year relocation window or tie its start to the issuance of the allotment table.
If it’s tied to the table, under the Adrick scenario broadcasters would have until 2020 to complete the work.
Many things could cause further delays anywhere in the process, including legal challenges to the FCC rules or auction procedures.
One controversial area is the software that the FCC is developing to generate the new table of allotments. The law says stations that are moved onto new channels must enjoy the same coverage they had on their original channels.
To meet that obligation, the law requires the FCC to base its table on the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology Bulletin 69 coverage models.
Software that strays from OET Bulletin 69 is “a deal breaker” for NAB, says Kaplan. “Think about the health care rollout. This entire auction will rely on software. That is a very complicated process that has to be perfect; otherwise the entire auction is based on a fiction.”