This morning, the FCC released a Public Notice announcing that, commencing immediately and until further notice, it will no longer accept modification applications (or amendments to modification applications) from full power and Class A television stations if the modification would increase the station’s coverage in any direction beyond its current authorization.
The Public Notice also indicates that the FCC will cease processing modification applications that are already on file if the modification will increase the station’s coverage in any direction. Applicants with a pending modification application subject to the freeze are being given 60 days to amend their application to prevent an increase in coverage (or seek a waiver), thereby allowing those applications to be processed by the FCC. Modification applications that are not amended within that period will not be processed until after the FCC releases its order in the Spectrum Auction proceeding, and at that point will be subject to any new rules or policies adopted in that rulemaking that would limit station modifications.
With regard to Class A stations specifically, the FCC will also not accept Class A displacement applications that increase a station’s coverage in any direction. Class A applications to implement the digital transition (flash cut and digital companion channels) will continue to be processed as long as they comply with the existing restrictions on such applications.
The FCC states that the reason for putting modification applications in the deep freeze is that:
We find that the imposition of limits on the filing and processing of modification applications is now appropriate to facilitate analysis of repacking methodologies and to assure that the objectives of the broadcast television incentive auction are not frustrated. The repacking methodology the Commission ultimately adopts will be a critical tool in reorganizing the broadcast TV spectrum pursuant to the statutory mandate. Additional development and analysis of potential repacking methodologies is required in light of the technical, policy, and auction design issues raised in the rulemaking proceeding. This work requires a stable database of full power and Class A broadcast facilities. In addition, to avoid frustrating the central goal of “repurpos[ing] the maximum amount of UHF band spectrum for flexible licensed and unlicensed use,” we believe it is now necessary to limit the filing and processing of modification applications that would expand broadcast television stations’ use of spectrum.
So once again, television broadcasters are tossed into a digital ice age, unable to adapt their facilities to shifting population areas, which seems to be the polar opposite of what Congress intended in requiring that spectrum incentive auctions not reduce broadcast service to the public. Aggravating the situation is that, unlike some of the DTV transition application freezes, the FCC is not limiting this freeze to large urban markets where it hopes to free up broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband. Indeed, modification applications were already less likely in those heavily populated urban areas because of the existing spectrum congestion that makes modifying a TV station’s signal difficult.
As a result, the broadcasters most likely to be hurt by the freeze are those in more rural areas–areas that have ample available spectrum for broadcasting and broadband, and which the FCC has said are not really the target of its spectrum incentive auction. Those broadcasters will have to hope that the FCC is serious about considering freeze waiver requests. Otherwise, rural Americans will once again see improvements in their communications services delayed while the FCC focuses all its attention on securing more spectrum for broadband in urban population centers.