Articles Posted in Congress & Legislation

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As we posted earlier, the FCC voted at its February meeting to preempt state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina restricting municipalities from providing broadband service. The FCC has now released the text of its Order, and it reveals the expanse of the FCC’s concerns, filling in the details as to the types of state law provisions the FCC considers to be barriers to broadband competition and therefore subject to preemption. The Order furnishes critical guidance to other municipalities considering a challenge of laws in their own states. It also informs state legislators as to how they can modify existing state laws to avoid a future confrontation with the FCC.

In the Order, the FCC preempted a Tennessee law prohibiting municipal electric utilities from providing broadband service outside their service areas, and certain restrictions and requirements of a North Carolina law. The FCC did so under its asserted authority pursuant to Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to remove barriers to broadband investment and promote broadband competition. The specific restrictions the FCC found to constitute or contribute to such barriers are summarized below, and the breadth of the FCC’s preemption of these restrictions is substantial. As a result, no one should be surprised to see more preemption requests arriving at the FCC.

Tennessee Law

The Tennessee law was fairly straightforward. It prohibited a municipally-owned electric power system from offering internet or video services anywhere outside the geographic footprint in which it provides electric service. The FCC found that this territorial restriction was an explicit barrier to broadband investment and competition, and used its authority under Section 706 to preempt the restriction. This portion of the FCC’s decision offers no real surprises, and relies on a fairly basic view of what constitutes a barrier to growth in municipal broadband.

North Carolina Law

Far more interesting is the portion of the Order relating to North Carolina. The North Carolina law was more complex, containing a variety of restrictions and requirements for municipalities wishing to deploy broadband service. The FCC found that, taken in the aggregate, these portions of the law created a barrier to broadband investment and competition, leading the FCC to preempt them. While acknowledging that some of the preempted provisions in the North Carolina law might have been allowed to stand individually, the FCC concluded that the aggregate effect required their preemption. In taking this approach, the FCC left some uncertainly as to which provisions it would have preempted on even a stand-alone basis, but provided very helpful guidance as to both the nature and scope of the FCC’s concerns. As the list of provisions preempted by the FCC set forth below indicates, the FCC’s view of barriers to municipal broadband growth is quite expansive.
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While the FCC’s net neutrality order got most of the attention yesterday, the FCC took another major broadband-related action at its February 26 meeting. Over the strenuous objections of incumbent internet service providers (“ISPs”), trade associations for ISPs, states, the National Governor’s Association and others, the FCC on a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly dissenting, preempted state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina which placed limitations on municipally-owned broadband networks. The FCC’s action, if upheld in the judicial review certain to follow, would allow municipalities currently prohibited by state law from expanding service to do so via federal preemption of those restrictions. Advocates of the FCC’s action argue that it will open the door to a more robust expansion of high-speed broadband service, especially in rural areas and other locations that would otherwise be underserved.

The matter began last year when the City of Wilson, North Carolina and the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, an agency of the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee (the “EPB”) challenged state restrictions on their operations. Wilson and the EPB own and operate high-speed fiber broadband networks in their respective communities, and each claimed that it wants to expand the geographic scope of its network but is effectively blocked from doing so by state laws. Wilson and EPB asked the FCC to use its power under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to preempt those laws, arguing that they are inconsistent with the federal policy of making broadband available to all Americans.

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act provides that the FCC “shall take immediate action to accelerate deployment of [broadband to all Americans] by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.” Wilson and EPB argued that Section 706 gives the FCC the power to preempt the Tennessee and North Carolina statutes because those statutes constitute barriers to network investment and competition. Wilson and EPB were supported by a number of municipalities and municipal utilities, and organizations representing them, as well as by technology companies such as Netflix and scores of individual commenters. Those parties generally argued that encouraging municipalities such as Wilson and EPB to expand internet service to consumers is precisely the sort of competition that the FCC should be promoting, and would encourage the spread of high speed broadband to rural areas that are unserved or underserved by incumbent ISPs. Wilson, EPB and their supporters also asserted that the state laws limiting municipal broadband service were enacted at the behest of incumbent ISPs to insulate them from competition.

Incumbent ISPs and others opposing Wilson and EPB argued that municipal broadband services often fail to succeed financially, leaving taxpayers stuck with the bill, while not necessarily promoting effective competition or the rollout of broadband to unserved areas. They also argued that the FCC lacks authority to preempt state laws under Section 706 because that provision does not explicitly provide such authority. In addition, they argued that preemption would be inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Nixon vs. Missouri Municipal League, where municipalities petitioned the FCC for preemption of a Missouri law prohibiting municipalities from providing telecommunications services. At issue in Nixon was the language of Section 253 of the Communications Act of 1934 which provided that no state law could prohibit “the ability of any entity to provide … telecommunications service.” The Court held that “any entity” did not include municipalities, which are political subdivisions of the states themselves. As a result, opponents of Wilson and EPB claimed that Nixon bars the FCC from interfering with a state’s sovereignty over its municipalities by preempting the limitations the state has placed on those municipalities.

Although the text of the Order adopted at the February 26 meeting has not yet been released, from the statements made by the Chairman and commissioners at the meeting, it appears the FCC is asserting that its preemption authority empowers it only to strike down the state restrictions, or “red tape” as Chairman Wheeler referred to them, that the states of Tennessee and North Carolina had imposed on municipalities which they had otherwise authorized to provide broadband service. Proceeding from this perspective, a state could ban a municipality from providing broadband service altogether, but once it has given the municipality authority to provide broadband service, it may not impose restrictions that create barriers to network investment and competition.

It is important to note that the FCC’s Order is limited to the specific statutes in Tennessee and North Carolina, and that other state laws would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis following the filing of petitions with the FCC by municipalities in those states. However, yesterday’s action provides a strong indication of how the current FCC would likely rule in cases involving the other 17 states that have similar restrictions on municipally-provided broadband service.

One can expect at least two things to result from the FCC’s action. First, other municipalities wishing to build or expand their own broadband networks may file petitions with the FCC for preemption of laws in their states claiming that those laws restrict municipally-deployed broadband networks.

Second, the FCC’s action will almost certainly be subject to judicial challenges and stay requests by the States of Tennessee and North Carolina, as well as other parties in interest. By limiting its claimed authority under Section 706 to review restrictions imposed by states on municipal broadband service to “red tape” restrictions, without disturbing a state’s right to make the fundamental decision as to whether a municipality should be permitted to offer broadband service in the first place, the FCC is seeking to navigate a course that will make the preemption more limited and therefore easier to defend in the inevitable court challenges. Whether that will be enough for yesterday’s action to survive a trip through the courts remains to be seen.

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The FCC voted on net neutrality rules in an open meeting today (that was delayed an hour due to yet more snow in DC), and the highly anticipated vote ran into a few last minute snags. First, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, one of the three Democrats on the FCC’s five-member Commission and an essential vote given the party-line split at the FCC on net neutrality, asked Chairman Wheeler to scale back some of the proposed provisions in the Order prior to today’s vote.

Second, the tension between the Chairman and Republican commissioners Pai and O’Rielly continued, with Pai and O’Rielly not merely voting against the item, but vocally making their case for minimizing rather than expanding the FCC’s dominion over Internet business practices. This followed their spirited opposition in the weeks leading up to the meeting, where commissioners Pai and O’Rielly very publicly urged Chairman Wheeler to release the FCC’s proposed rules to the public for review and to postpone the vote to allow the public 30 days to comment on those rules, a request which the Chairman rejected.

As anticipated, the final vote today was a 3-2 split in favor of reclassifying broadband Internet access under Title II of the Communications Act, thereby making it subject to significant regulation by the FCC. Each of the commissioners released a statement in support of their respective position, with statements in favor from Democratic commissioners Wheeler, Clyburn, and Rosenworcel, and statements in opposition from Republican commissioners Pai and O’Rielly.

The FCC released a Public Notice summarizing the rule changes adopted by the Commission in the Order. According to the Public Notice, the FCC adopted the following bright line rules:

  • No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
  • No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or the use of non-harmful devices.
  • No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind–in other words, no “fast lanes” and no prioritizing the content and services of an Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) affiliates.

The FCC also adopted a “standard for future conduct” whereby ISPs cannot “unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage” the ability of consumers to select, access, and use the lawful content, applications, services, or devices of their choosing; or of edge providers to make lawful content, applications, services, or devices available to consumers.” Finally, the FCC added additional ISP disclosure provisions to its existing transparency rule.

Let the litigation begin.

So how did we reach this regulatory crescendo? The core issue that launched the “network neutrality” debate is whether an Internet Service Provider can deliver selected Internet sites and services to customers faster than others in exchange for compensation from the website receiving the benefit. In line with the FCC’s previous approach of treating the Internet as something completely new and different from the telecommunications services it had traditionally regulated, the FCC resisted involving itself in anything that could be described as regulation of the Internet. However, as the Internet grew and it became clear that it (a) was no longer a fledgling service that might be accidentally extinguished by government regulation; and (b) had moved from being a convenience to being as essential to the public as gas or electric, regulatory attitudes began to change.

The result was the FCC’s 2005 Open Internet Policy Statement, in which the FCC concluded that ISPs were not subject to mandatory common-carrier regulation like telephone services (referred to as “Title II” regulation because it is governed by Title II of the Communications Act of 1934). The FCC did conclude, however, that it had authority to regulate ISPs under its ancillary authority to impose “light touch” regulatory obligations under the less restrictive Title I of the Communications Act.
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Updating the nation`s communications laws is a perennial hot topic in Washington, with the phrase “the law hasn’t kept up with technology” being routinely invoked by those wishing for a change in the law (whether or not technology has anything to do with it).

During the past year, however, the call to update the much amended Communications Act of 1934 has gained momentum, with Congress showing increased interest in taking on the controversial task. While modernizing the statute is not, at least conceptually, all that controversial given how often it has been updated in the past, how it is modernized promises to be a very heated debate given the high stakes involved for a variety of industries.

It is upon the shoals of such controversy that numerous past efforts to update the law have foundered, and observers couldn’t be faulted for believing that any new initiative faces a similar fate. However, what separates the current effort to modernize the statute from many past discussions is that Congress has begun taking concrete steps to move the process forward. Today, the Energy & Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives announced the release of a White Paper outlining the current state of the Communications Act.

The announcement notes that

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) today began seeking public input as they work to review and update the Communications Act. In December, Upton and Walden announced that the committee will begin work this year on a comprehensive #CommActUpdate, including a white paper series that seeks to understand areas where the law is no longer working effectively and find ways to improve it to foster an environment for innovation, consumer choice, and economic growth. The white paper released today focuses on broad thematic concepts for updating the Communications Act.

The White Paper, which can be found here, summarizes the history of, and regulatory structure created by, the Communications Act. The Energy & Commerce Committee is asking for input from interested parties on a “series of questions posed in the white paper and is also offering an opportunity for interested parties to comment on any aspect of the Communications Act.” The specific questions include:

1. The current Communications Act is structured around particular services. Does this structure work for the modern communications sector? If not, around what structures or principles should the titles of the Communications Act revolve?

2. What should a modern Communications Act look like? Which provisions should be retained from the existing Act, which provisions need to be adapted for today’s communications environment, and which should be eliminated?

3. Are the structure and jurisdiction of the FCC in need of change? How should they be tailored to address systemic change in communications?

4. As noted, the rapidly evolving nature of technology can make it difficult to legislate and regulate communications services. How do we create a set of laws flexible enough to have staying power? How can the laws be more technology-neutral?

5. Does the distinction between information and telecommunications services continue to serve a purpose? If not, how should the two be rationalized?

While the scope of these questions is immense, the time to respond is not. The announcement of the White Paper asks that comments be submitted by January 31, 2014. Even with Christmas just behind us, it is a safe bet that numerous industry players are hastily drafting their wish lists now in hopes that Congress will be bringing them lots of legislative goodies in any Communications Act rewrite, while leaving their competitors only lumps of regulatory coal.

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The irony. The sheer irony. Just a few weeks ago, Congress was holding hearings in which the challenges of concluding retransmission negotiations without the occasional service disruption featured prominently. Representative Eshoo’s draft legislation targeting such disruptions had just been released, and there was little doubt that some members of Congress felt that CBS and Time Warner Cable had not worked hard enough at preventing a disruption of CBS programming on TWC cable systems, or worse, had been indifferent to the impact on cable viewers.

Fast forward a few weeks and we now face another impasse where the parties have been unable to negotiate an accord, with the resulting disruption greatly affecting the public. Also familiar are the statements to the press and the public by the negotiators that the inability to reach a negotiated resolution is entirely the other party’s fault.

The difference this week is that we are not talking about a retrans dispute, but the shutdown of the federal government. While the ramifications of this disruption are far greater than any retrans dispute, the similarity of circumstances is striking. First, all of the parties to the negotiation knew well in advance exactly when the current authorization was expiring and of the need to negotiate an extension. Second, all of the parties knew that the stakes are high and that disruption of service to the public should be avoided if at all possible. Third, it is primarily a dispute about money.

And yet, despite the early warning, the high stakes, and the impending loss of service to the public, Congress failed to reach agreement and the government shut down. As I wrote a few weeks ago, as nice as it would be to avoid it, one of the inherent characteristics of arm’s length negotiations is that a disruption is sometimes necessary to jolt the parties into moving off of their original positions and on to a negotiated result. Admittedly, national budgetary policy is more complex than most (but perhaps not all) retransmission negotiations, but then the adverse impact of the accompanying disruption is vastly greater as well.

Unlike a retrans dispute, however, where the public can fully restore service with a set of rabbit ears, nothing I can buy at my local radio Radio Shack will open the national parks or allow FCC staffers to return to their desks to process my applications. In short, even where the harm from service disruption is infinitely greater than in any retrans negotiation, Congress failed to find common ground and avoid that disruption.

Given the high stakes, it is interesting that there are actually far more protections against failed negotiations in the retrans context than in the congressional context. For example, unlike Congress, parties to retransmission negotiations are subject to the FCC’s rule requiring good faith negotiations. While those who assert that the current retrans process is broken frequently argue that merely policing the negotiation process to ensure the parties are negotiating in good faith is not enough, it seems like those rules might actually be fairly useful in the current congressional conundrum.

For example, a party violates the FCC’s good faith rule if it refuses to show up for negotiations, unreasonably delays negotiations, refuses to put forth more than a single unilateral proposal (the “take it or leave it” approach), or fails to respond to a proposal by the other party. Some might argue that such restrictions limit a party’s freedom to negotiate, but all retrans negotiations are conducted within that regulatory framework, making retrans negotiations more regulated than most, and giving proponents of adding yet further layers of restrictions a high hurdle to jump.

That will of course not prevent continued efforts by regulatory proponents to make that leap, but given the events of this week, it will be hard for members of Congress to feign shock and disbelief that two parties, even after making arduous efforts, aren’t always able to negotiate away their differences before those differences disrupt service to the public. Where such intractable disputes arise, we should all be thrilled if all that is needed to solve the problem is a pair of rabbit ears.

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The August 20, 2013 Federal Register (“FedReg”) included a notice officially establishing the comment and reply cycle associated with the Federal Communications Commission’s (“FCC” or “Commission”) recently released Modernizing the E-Rate Program for Schools and Libraries Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”).1 According to the FedReg notice, comments are due September 16, 2013 and reply comments are due October 16, 2013. This is the Commission’s latest effort to modernize and streamline the E-Rate program.

The catalyst for this ambitious initiative is President Obama’s ConnectED initiative (the “Initiative”)2, which establishes that within five years 99 percent of U.S. students will have access to broadband and high-speed Internet access (at least 100 MBPS with a goal of 1 GPS within five years) within their schools and libraries. The Initiative includes: 1) providing the training and support for teachers needed for the effective use of technology in the classroom and 2) encouraging the development and deployment of complimentary devices and software to enhance learning experiences and 3) resurrecting the U.S. as a world leader in educational achievement.

The E-rate program was created in 1997 to “ensur[e] that schools and libraries ha[d] the connectivity necessary to enable students and library patrons to participate in the digital world.”3 According to the NPRM, the program commenced when “only 14 percent of the classrooms had access to the Internet, and most schools with Internet access (74 percent) used dial-up Internet access.”4 Seven years later, “nearly all schools had access to the Internet, and 94 percent of all instructional classrooms had Internet access.” A year later, “nearly all public libraries were connected to the Internet….”5
The E-rate program requires recipients to file annual funding requests. Those funding requests are categorized as either Priority One or Priority Two. Priority One funds may be applied to support telecommunications services, telecommunications and Internet access services, including but not limited to, digital transmission services, e-mail services, fiber and dark fiber, interconnected VoIP, paging, telephone service, voice mail service and wireless Internet access. Priority Two funds are allocated for support of internal connections, including, but not limited to, cabling/connectors, circuit cards and components, data distribution, data protection, interfaces, gateways and antennas, servers and software. The funds are calculated as discounts for acquiring, constructing and maintaining the services. Discount eligibility, which ranges between 20-90 percent, is established by the recipient’s status within the National School and Lunch Program (“NSLP”) or an “alternative mechanism”.6 The NPRM indicated that, “the most disadvantaged schools and libraries, where at least 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price school lunch, receive a 90 percent discount on eligible services, and thus pay only 10 percent of the cost of those services.”7
The advent of high-capacity broadband has transformed Internet access into a portal by which students can experience interactive and collaborative learning experiences regardless of their geographic (rural or urban) location while preparing them to “compete in the global economy.”8 As with most improvements, this transformation is encumbered in the ways and means for acquiring, constructing and maintaining such technology. The E-rate program, including its administration and funding provisions, has remained relatively unchanged since 1997. The initial, and still current, cap on funding was $2.25 billion dollars. The FCC has indicated that requests for funding have exceeded that cap almost from the beginning. In 2013, requests for E-rate funding totaled more than $4.9 billion dollars.

Article continues — the full article can be found at FCC Commences E-Rate Program Overhaul.

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Recently, TVNewsCheck.com ran a short item noting that a large broadcast group (not a network owned and operated group) and a large multichannel video distributor (MVPD) successfully concluded carriage negotiations. There was no interruption of service. Given the successful outcome, I was surprised to see that someone posted a comment regarding the piece saying the deal illustrates why the FCC should tighten its broadcast ownership rules. No matter how many times I read comments of this sort, I am perplexed that people actually believe it’s a good thing for the government to mandate that broadcasters be the underdogs in all major negotiations that impact the quality and availability of broadcasters’ programming. If anything, government policy should encourage broadcasters to grow to a scale that is meaningful in today’s complex television marketplace. Not one of the other major distributors makes its programming available for free.

If independent (non-O&O) broadcasters aren’t permitted to achieve a scale large enough to negotiate effectively with upstream programmers and downstream distributors, you won’t have to wait long see high cost, high quality, high value programming available for free to those who choose to opt out of the pay TV ecosystem. It’s much better to have two, three or four strong competitors in each market, owned by companies that can compete for rational economics in the upstream and downstream markets, than to have eight or more weak competitors, few of which can afford to invest in truly local service or negotiate at arms-length with program suppliers and distributors.

For those who have not been paying attention, the television market has changed profoundly in the past 20 years. The big programmers and the big MVPDs have gotten a whole lot bigger. The largest non-O&O broadcast groups have grown too, but not nearly as much. Fox, Disney/ABC, NBCU and the other programmers are vastly bigger companies with incomparable market power vis-a-vis even the largest broadcast groups. The same is true of the large MVPDs, which together serve the great majority of television households.

There’s nothing inherently bad about big content aggregators and big MVPD distributors. And anyway, they are a fact of life. Despite their size, each is trying to deliver a competitive service and deliver good returns for shareholders. That’s what they are supposed to do, and in general (with a few exceptions) they serve the country well. But again, they are much, much larger than even the largest broadcast groups. If you believe that having a viable and competitive free television option is a good thing, that’s a problem.

So in response to the suggestion that the FCC further limit the scale of broadcasters, I reply: why does the government make it so damn hard for the only television service that is available for free to bargain and compete with vastly larger enterprises that are comparatively unregulated?

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Today, December 13, 2012, is the effective date of the FCC’s rules implementing the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act. As a result, all commercial broadcast television stations and multichannel video program providers (“MVPDs”) must have by today either sought a waiver or installed equipment and undertaken procedures to comply with the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) A/85: “ATSC Recommended Practice: Techniques for Establishing and Maintaining Audio Loudness for Digital Television,” also known as the RP.

For locally inserted commercials, stations must install and maintain equipment and software that measures the loudness of the content and ensures that the dialnorm metadata value matches the loudness of the content when encoding audio for transmission (try saying that three times fast!). For commercials already embedded in the programming, stations must be able to pass through that CALM-compliant programming without adverse changes.

As long as that benign pass-through is accomplished, stations can rely on appropriate certifications from program suppliers to demonstrate compliance with respect to embedded commercials. If a program supplier does not provide the certification, “large” television stations and “large” and “very large” MVPDs (as defined by the FCC) must conduct annual spot checks of the programming. The first spot checks must be completed one year from today, by December 13, 2013. Details on these compliance requirements can be found in Paul Cicelski’s post on the CALM Act earlier this year. We will also shortly be posting a Pillsbury Advisory on ensuring continuing CALM Act compliance.

As noted above, the FCC created a waiver procedure for stations and MVPDs where compliance would be financially burdensome, allowing them up to a year of additional time to come into compliance. Waiver requests were originally due back in October, but the FCC announced two days ago that it would accept waiver applications from small television stations filed through today. “Small” television stations, that is, those with less than $14 million in revenues in 2011 or that are in markets 150 to 210, were not required to submit highly detailed financial data with their waiver requests, and the FCC indicated that waiver requests would be deemed granted upon filing unless the FCC later advises the applicant otherwise.

In response, more than 125 waiver requests were filed. Earlier this week, the FCC granted two of them, including one from a television station in the midst of a studio move that will include installation of upgraded equipment for CALM Act compliance. Stations that do not have a waiver request on file with the FCC by today need to have the equipment and procedures in place to ensure they are operating in compliance with the CALM Act. That means that stressed television viewers will be having a calmer holiday season, while station and MVPD engineers and managers stress out trying to remain CALM.

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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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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.