FCC's TV Channel Sharing Rules Go Into Effect Soon But the Picture Isn't Clear

Paul A. Cicelski Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted May 25, 2012

By Lauren Lynch Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

The FCC has announced that the preliminary television channel sharing rules in the FCC's Report and Order in the Innovation in Broadcast Television Bands proceeding will become effective on June 22, 2012. The rules establish the basic framework by which two or more full-power/Class A television stations can voluntarily choose to share a single 6 MHz channel. Channel sharing is integral to clearing the television broadcast spectrum so that the FCC can auction it for wireless broadband as called for in the National Broadband Plan. The rules follow the signing of the "Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012", which we discussed in detail in a previous post. Also called the "Spectrum Act," that law gives the FCC authority to conduct incentive auctions to encourage television broadcasters to get out of the business or find new business models that rely on less spectrum, such as doubling up with another station on a single 6 MHz channel.

The FCC's new rules allow a station to tender its existing 6 MHz channel to the FCC, making it available for the "reverse" or "incentive" spectrum auction. The tendering station can set a reserve price below which it won't sell. To encourage more stations to participate in the auction, the FCC is also permitting stations, in advance of the auction, to agree to share a single 6 MHz channel after the auction. In this scenario, one of the two stations would tender its channel into the auction, and both stations would share the proceeds and operate on the remaining 6 MHz channel after the auction. The FCC's Order makes clear that channel sharing arrangements will be voluntary, and that stations will be "given flexibility" to control some of the key parameters under which they will combine their operations on a single channel, including allocation of auction proceeds among the parties.

Each station sharing a 6 MHz channel will be required to retain enough capacity to transmit one standard definition stream, which must be free of charge to viewers. Each will have its own separate license and call sign, and each will be subject to all of the Commission's rules, including all technical rules and programming requirements. Stations that agree to share a channel will retain their current cable carriage rights. Commercial and noncommercial full-power and Class A TV stations are permitted to participate in the incentive auction and enter into channel sharing agreements, but low power TV and TV translator stations are not.

Many more details will have to be resolved prior to the incentive auction. Our own John Hane recently discussed the procedural uncertainties surrounding the auction in a detailed and comprehensive interview conducted by Harry Jessell of TVNewsCheck. The transcript of the interview can be found here. At bottom, John concluded that the largest obstacle facing the FCC will be designing the auction so that a sufficient number of broadcasters find it attractive to participate.

The FCC invited John and other industry experts to participate in a Channel Sharing Workshop earlier this week. In the meantime, John and other Pillsbury attorneys have been actively helping stations assess the risks and opportunities of the incentive auctions, including spectrum valuation and strategies for the forward and reverse auctions and spectrum repacking. Many of the issues raised at the FCC's Channel Sharing Workshop dealt with the intricacies of the arrangements broadcasters will have to craft to govern their relationship with a channel sharing partner. These ranged from how multiple channel "residents" will manage capital investments in facilities upgrades, to what might happen if one licensee on a shared channel goes bankrupt, sells, or turns in its license. A recording of the Workshop can be accessed here.

The FCC acknowledged that much work lies ahead of it. To that end, the FCC announced at the Workshop that the first of a series of Notice of Proposed Rulemakings concerning issues raised during the Workshop will be released in the Fall. The FCC did not predict a timeframe for completing the auction design process and establishing service rules.

As these and other issues take the fore, television broadcasters must remain engaged, shaping the process to allow them the maximum flexibility to develop relationships and business models that can thrive in the post-auction environment.

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