Spectrum Auction Legislation Becomes Law, But Now What?

Scott R. Flick

Posted March 2, 2012

By Scott R. Flick

Following many months of debate and after trying several potential legislative vehicles, the House and Senate finally enacted spectrum auction legislation as part of the bill to extend payroll tax cuts for another year. It was signed by the President last week, and for those following the process for the past two years, the result was somewhat anticlimactic. That is mostly good news for broadcasters, as the NAB was successful in ensuring that the law contains enough protections for broadcasters to prevent the spectral armageddon that it once appeared broadcasters might face.

Having said that, we can't ignore that there were bodies left out on the legislative battlefield, the most obvious being low power TV and TV translator stations. Under the new law, these stations are not permitted to participate in the spectrum auction, are not protected from being displaced to oblivion in the repacking process, and are not entitled to reimbursement of displacement expenses. It is that last point that may be the most important in rural areas. While it is possible there could be enough post-repacking broadcast spectrum in rural areas for TV translators to survive, they will still need to move off of the nationwide swaths of spectrum the FCC intends to auction to wireless companies. Unfortunately, many if not most TV translator licensees are local and regional entities with minimal financial resources. Telling such a licensee that it needs to move to a new channel, or worse, to a different location to make the new channel work, may be the same as telling it to shut down.

This is particularly true when the sheer quantity of translator facilities that might have to be moved is considered. For example, there are nearly 350 TV translators in Montana alone. Moving even a third of them will be an expensive proposition for licensees whose primary purpose is not profit, but the continued availability of rural broadcast service. Further complicating the picture is the fact that in border states like Montana, protecting spectrum for low power TV and TV translators will inevitably be a very low priority when negotiating a new spectrum realignment treaty with Canada or Mexico to permit reallotment of the band.

While full-power and Class A television stations therefore fared much better in the legislation, for those uninterested in selling their spectrum, spectrum repacking will still not be a pleasant experience. Those of us who endured the repacking process during the DTV transition can attest to how complex and challenging the process can be, and the DTV process had the luxury of fifteen years of planning and execution, as well as a lot more spectrum in the broadcast band with which to work. Having already squeezed the broadcast spectrum lemon pretty hard during the DTV transition, the FCC may find that there isn't much juice left in it for a second go around. That, combined with a much tighter time frame, could make this an even more complex and messy process.

In addition, while it hasn't drawn as much attention as it should have, one other changed factor is that after the DTV transition was completed, the FCC opened up TV "white spaces" (spectrum between allotted broadcast channels) for unlicensed use by technology companies seeking to introduce new products and services requiring spectrum. Having enticed companies into investing many millions of dollars in research and development for these white spaces products and services, eliminating the white spaces during the repacking process (which is the point of repacking) could leave many of these companies out in the cold. This is a particularly likely outcome given that the very markets white spaces companies are interested in--densely populated urban areas--are precisely those areas where the FCC most desperately wants to obtain additional spectrum for wireless, and where available spectrum is already scarce. Like low power TV and TV translator licensees, these white spaces companies are pretty much going to be told to "suck the lemon" and hope there are a few drops of spectrum left for them after the repacking.

Still, while there certainly are some obstacles to overcome, the DTV transition gave the FCC staff priceless experience in navigating a repacking, and the FCC already has ample experience auctioning off spectrum. The question is whether this particular undertaking is so vast as to be unmanageable, or whether quick but careful planning can remove most of the sharp edges. Once again, the devil will be in the details, and no one envies the FCC with regard to the task it has before it. However, the chance for an optimal outcome will be maximized if all affected parties engage the FCC as it designs the process. In addition to hopefully producing a workable result for the FCC, broadcasters engaged in the process can ensure that the result is good not just for broadcasters in general, but for their particular stations.

For those interested in getting an advance view of what specifically is involved, Harry Jessell of TVNewsCheck recently interviewed our own John Hane to discuss some of the pragmatic issues facing the FCC and the broadcast industry in navigating the spectrum auction landscape. The transcript of the interview can be found here. John's comments provide additional detail on the tasks facing the FCC, as well as how long the process will likely take.

While everyone impacted by the spectrum auction and repacking process faces many uncertainties as to its outcome, of this we can be certain: challenging times lay ahead.

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