Howard Symons of the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force says that work is proceeding apace on a computer program that will calculate when stations have to move to their new channels in the TV band repacking that will follow the incentive auction. He promises ample opportunities for broadcasters and other stakeholders to vet the program this summer and suggest changes. What is unlikely to change, however, is the time for completing the entire repack. "At this point, we see no reason that 39 months won’t work."
Symons: FCC Focusing On TV Band Repack
Sometime late this summer, the FCC expects to complete work on a computer program that will allow it to quickly draw up a plan for the repacking of the TV band at the close of incentive auction — essentially a detailed schedule for when each station assigned a new channel has to move to that channel, says FCC Incentive Auction Task Force Vice Chair Howard Symons in an interview with TVNewsCheck.
“We are looking at all the inputs in order to model a repacking schedule that is feasible, that respects the number of tower crews out there, the realistic expectations for ramping up manufacturing, the capabilities of the antennas,” he says.
And before the program is finalized, he says, “stakeholders” — primarily broadcasters and wireless — will have ample opportunities to review it, challenge its assumptions and offer changes.
“We are looking right now at the best options for accomplishing that public vetting of the model.”
Even though the program will be completed this summer, Symons says, the FCC cannot run it until the incentive auction is completed and the number of stations that will be moving — and where they will be moving — is known.
“We can develop the model and then when the auction is over we will be ready to feed the data into the model and come up with a schedule,” he says.
No one is sure when the two-sided incentive auction will end. The reverse auction in which the FCC buys spectrum from broadcasters is already underway and it should wrap up in a couple of weeks. The forward auction in which wireless carriers buy that spectrum from the FCC will begin in late July or early August and run into the fall.
However, if the FCC fails to raise enough money in the forward auction to cover its commitments to the broadcasters in the reverse, the agency will go to another stage — a repeat of both the reverse and forward auctions. That could take the incentive auction well into 2017.
Whenever the auction closes, the FCC will reorganize or repack the TV to segregate the new wireless spectrum from the remaining TV spectrum. That process will require hundreds of TV stations to move to new channels.
The repack program is full of variables. But not among them is the time broadcasters will have to move to their new channels. In 2014, the FCC decreed that they will have 39 months from when they get their new channel assignments after the close of the auction.
“At this point, we see no reason that 39 months won’t work,” Symons says.
That deadline represents a balancing of the interests of broadcasters, wireless carriers and consumers, he says. “We wanted to make sure the broadcasters had adequate time to move, that viewers weren’t disrupted and, at the same time, that the forward auction bidders had the confidence to know that they were going to get access to this hopefully expensive spectrum they paid lots of money for within a reasonable period of time.”
To build the program, Symons says, the FCC has been gathering information through outreach to antenna and transmitter manufacturers, tower owners and crews and others that would be involved in the channel repacking.
The FCC also invited stakeholders for their input a year ago and they did not hesitate to supply it.
A study commissioned by the NAB found that the repack could take up to 11 years given limited resources — RF consulting engineers, tower companies, structural engineers, high-tower crews, antennas, transmitters and other RF gear.
A T-Mobile study challenged the NAB study, arguing that the NAB had grossly underestimated the availability of some of those resources and concluding that 39 months would be adequate to get the job done.
Some broadcasters and wireless carriers have publicly endorsed the idea of a “summit” where they could meet face to face to share ideas and settle differences, perhaps under the aegis of the FCC.
But Symons is not keen on the idea, fearing that it might corrupt the incentive auction. “We obviously have an issue. We are in the middle of the auction so what we don’t want to do is create a forum where people can trade bidding information advertently or inadvertently. “
Symons also says that stakeholders do not have to wait to tell the FCC what they think. As work on the program proceeds this summer, there is nothing to stop stakeholders from offering suggestions, Symons says.
Several of the stakeholders have advocated phasing in the repack on a region-by-region basis, and that’s the direction the FCC work is heading, Symons says.
However, he adds, the FCC is taking a “more granular” approach than anything the stakeholders have proposed.
“So it’s not like let’s start in New England and then go to New York and then go to Delaware. We may wind up doing two regions at once. We may wind up going from the South up rather than the North down.”
A challenge is to figure out how to break the “daisy chains” of stations, he says. “In a lot of these regions, there are key stations that you have got to move first in order to create the room to relocate most if not all of the other stations.”
According to Symons, the FCC is making progress on other aspects of the repacking plan.
Broadcasters that are forced to move are entitled by law to be reimbursed for their costs. The money is to come from the proceeds from the forward auction and is currently capped by law at $1.75 billion.
The NAB has argued that the $1.75 billion may not be enough to cover broadcasters’ cost.
As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has told congressional oversight panels repeatedly, Symons says, “if Congress determines that the funds should be greater than that, then that’s fine with us. We are not saying, no, it’s got to be $1.75 billion, but right now, $1.75 billion is the hand that we have got and that’s the one we are going to play.
In 2013, the FCC published a “catalog” showing how much the FCC would reimburse for particular hardware and services. Symons says that he is aware the some broadcasters feel some of the figures are low. “We recognize that the 2013 numbers will have to be updated before we actually get into the reimbursement process itself.”
The FCC is also reviewing outside firms that have bid to administer the reimbursements, and Symons says to expect an announcement “shortly.”
“There are going to be a lot of broadcasters who are going to be receiving parts of that $1.75 billion fund. We want to make sure that it’s dispersed efficiently, effectively, appropriately, that the costs covered are reasonable and that the broadcasters have a mechanism that they can count on. “
With the reverse auction well underway, Symons says the FCC is “pivoting” to focus more on the repack.
The best evidence of that may be the appointment earlier this month of Jean Kiddoo to oversee the repack as the Task Force’s deputy chair of transition. Kiddoo has been involved in the incentive auction as chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, a job she took in 2014 after 30 years as a communications attorney in private practice.
Pointing out that the repack will “span several years,” she says she will rely on the existing bureaus for the work that needs to be done. “The task force will continue to be lean and mean.”
For instance, the Media Bureau will process the construction permits for stations’ new channel assignments, she says, while the International Bureau handles frequency coordination with Mexico and Canada.
And, she says, she will call in the Consumer & Government Affairs Bureau. “This is going to touch a lot of consumers throughout the country in terms of stations going off air, stations moving their channels, scanning for channels.”
Symons says the FCC understands repacking is a big challenge and is not taking it lightly.
“That’s why we brought Jean in. That’s why we are going to have the resources across the commission to make this work right, and it’s why we have told all the stakeholders that we encourage them to continue to be in contact with us to help us think these things through, to provide us with data and suggestions.
“We are not blind to the fact that this will be hard, but we think that it can be done.”