During an NAB Show panel, it became apparent that both broadcast and wireless interests see value in sitting down together to plan the post-auction spectrum reorganization, with both sides saying a region-by-region approach looks most efficient. T-Mobile’s Steve Sharkey: “Any chance to get together and try to figure out what the right process is is a positive step forward.” I agree; a summit would get further faster than any other method in bridging the gap between broadcasters and carriers.
Encouraging Words For A Repack Summit
In my column of March 25, I wrote that broadcasters and wireless carriers should be able sit down and craft a mutually beneficial plan for repacking the TV band after the incentive auction later this year.
This, I thought, could be done even those the two sides had different goals. The wireless carriers want to take possession of the spectrum they buy in the auction as soon as possible; the broadcasters want to make sure they don’t lose coverage or money when they are forced to move to new channels.
After covering a repacking panel at the NAB convention this week, I am even more convinced that it is all possible.
The panel comprised two broadcast reps: consulting engineer Dennis Wallace and GatesAir consultant Jay Adrick, and two wireless reps: Joan Marsh of AT&T and Steve Sharkey of T-Mobile.
And instead of some NAB-weary trade reporter, organizers recruited FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai to manage the panel. (He did a fine job and I propose him as the designated moderator for all NAB panels from here on out.)
With all the parties saying nice things, Adrick called for a “summit” where stakeholders would convene to come up with a repacking plan that would insure the quickest transition and the most efficient use of the limited resources needed for a mass channel migration — transmitters and other RF gear, consulting engineers, structural engineers expert on broadcast towers and tower crews.
And, significantly, the wireless reps were amenable. “A summit sounds like a good idea,” said Sharkey. “Any chance to get together and try to figure out what the right process is is a positive step forward.”
Marsh also endorsed the summit, saying that a broad discussion of available resources and how far they can be stretched is critical to developing a “reasonable” repack plan.
Even Pai weighed in on the affirmative when asked about it during the Q&A period. “I think the idea of a summit does make a lot of sense — to have an upfront public conversation where we air all these issues and make sure we think about all the variables that the FCC needs to take into account.”
Judging from the panel, if there is to be a summit, it would start from some basic agreements. For one, that it is best to repack the stations on a region-by-region basis.
Adrick has been talking that up for more than a year and T-Mobile and AT&T have already outlined such plans for the FCC.
According to Sharkey, T-Mobile believes dividing the country into eight regions would be “the most efficient and effective way to clear the entire country very quickly, with flexibility for broadcasters to … use their preferred crews.”
AT&T has floated what Pai described as The-Man-in-the-High-Castle approach. The transition would start simultaneously of the east and west coasts and then work its way into the vast middle of the country. (If you don’t get Pai’s allusion, you haven’t been watching Amazon Prime.)
It’s the same approach AT&T takes with its wireless network rebuilds, Marsh said. “We tend to take the areas at issue, divide them into meaningful regions and then focus our resources on a specific region until we are complete there and then move on to another region.”
Another apparent point of agreement is the $1.75 billion that Congress ordered be set aside from the auction proceeds to reimburse broadcasters for their re-lo expenses.
Marsh said she believes there is broad support for fully reimbursing broadcasters. “So, if the pot is not big enough there will be an effort on the Hill to make sure money is available to reimburse broadcasters appropriately.”
Sharkey did not disagree. “We think that [$1.75 billion] is in the ballpark. More money is always better.”
The friction between broadcasters and wireless carriers comes mostly from the repack deadline. The FCC has given stations just 39 months to move to their new channels and vacate their old ones.
Sharkey wasn’t budging on the deadline. “It is important to set a goal. Without a goal, we will never get there,” he said.
T-Mobile and the NAB commissioned conflicting studies on how long the repack should take given available resources. The T-Mobile study concluded that 39 months was plenty of time, but the NAB study said it could take up to 11 years under certain circumstances.
Sharkey argued a bit with Adrick and Wallace on the deadline, but it never heated up (another good sign), possibly because Adrick, citing new information, sharply amended his position. The repack should take only four-and-a-half to six years, he said. Adrick was one of the authors of the NAB study.
I guess I should caution you that Marsh and Sharkey don’t represent all the wireless carriers who will be buying spectrum. But they represent a couple of big ones.
You don’t really need a summit. A repacking plan could be worked out in an FCC rulemaking, but that seems an unnecessarily clumsy mechanism. A summit would get further faster in bridging the gap between broadcasters and carriers.
Now all we need is someone to lead — to pick a date, make the calls and order the coffee.