Spectrum Category

FCC Announces May 29, 2015 Licensing Deadline for Spectrum Repacking Protection

Scott R. Flick Paul A. Cicelski

Posted January 28, 2015

By Scott R. Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

In a just released Public Notice, the Media Bureau has designated May 29, 2015, as the Pre-Auction Licensing Deadline. That is the date by which certain full-power and Class A TV stations must have a license application on file with the FCC in order for their modified facilities to be protected in the repacking process following the spectrum incentive auction.

While the FCC earlier concluded that full-power and Class A TV facilities licensed by February 22, 2012 would be protected in the repacking, it envisioned protection of TV facilities licensed after that date in a few specific situations. It is to this latter group that the May 29, 2015 deadline applies. These include:

  • Full-power television facilities authorized by an outstanding channel substitution construction permit for a licensed station, including stations seeking to relocate from Channel 51 pursuant to voluntary relocation agreements with Lower 700 MHz A Block licensees;

  • Modified facilities of full-power and Class A television stations that were authorized by construction permits granted on or before April 5, 2013, the date of the FCC's announcement of a freeze on most television modification applications, or that have been authorized by construction permits that were granted after April 5, 2013, but which fit into one of the announced exceptions to the application freeze; and

  • Class A TV stations' initial digital facilities that were not licensed until after February 22, 2012, including those that were not authorized until after announcement of the modification application freeze.

Today's announcement means that, with the exception of stations affected by the destruction of the World Trade Center, stations in the categories above must complete construction and have a license application on file with the FCC by the May 29, 2015 deadline if they wish to have those facilities protected in the repacking process. According to the Public Notice, licensees affected by the destruction of the World Trade Center may elect to protect either their licensed Empire State Building facilities or a proposed new facility at One World Trade Center as long as that new facility has been applied for and authorized in a construction permit granted by the May 29 deadline.

The Public Notice will inevitably cause some confusion, as it refers in a number of places to having a facility "licensed" by the May 29 deadline (e.g., "We also emphasize that, in order for a Class A digital facility to be afforded protection in the repacking process, it must be licensed by the Pre-Auction Licensing Deadline."). Fortunately for those of us that read footnotes carefully (that's what lawyers do!), the FCC stated in the small print that "[t]he term 'licensed' encompasses both licensed facilities and those subject to a pending license to cover application...."

For those holding TV licenses that are more interested in the spectrum auction than in the repacking of stations afterwards, the Pre-Auction Licensing Deadline is also relevant, as the FCC indicates that "[t]he Pre-Auction Licensing Deadline will also determine which facilities are eligible for voluntary relinquishment of spectrum usage rights in the incentive auction." In other words, to the extent the FCC bases auction payments in part on a selling station's coverage area, the facilities constructed by the Pre-Auction Licensing Deadline (with a license application on file) will be used in making that determination.

Finally, the Public Notice indicates that this is a "last opportunity" for full power and Class A TV stations to modify their licenses to correct errors in their stated operating parameters if they want the FCC to use the correct operating parameters in determining post-auction protection.

So, whether a television station owner is planning on being a seller or a wallflower in the spectrum auction, today's announcement is an important one, and represents one of the FCC's more concrete steps towards holding the world's most complicated auction.

Breaking News: FCC Suspends Construction Deadlines and Expiration Dates for New LPTVs and Translators

Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted October 10, 2014

By Lauren Lynch Flick

Late today, the FCC released a Public Notice stating that "[e]ffective immediately, the expiration dates and construction deadlines for all outstanding unexpired construction permits for new digital low power television (LPTV) and TV translator stations are hereby suspended pending final action in the rulemaking proceeding in MB Docket No. 03-185 initiated today by the Commission."

As referenced in that statement, the FCC simultaneously released a Third Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) seeking comment on a number of issues related to the transition of LPTV stations to digital and their fate in the post-auction spectrum repacking. Specifically, the FCC states in the NPRM that:

In this proceeding, we consider the measures discussed in the Incentive Auction Report and Order, other measures to ensure the successful completion of the LPTV and TV translator digital transition and to help preserve the important services LPTV and TV translator stations provide, and other related matters. Specifically, we tentatively conclude that we should: (1) extend the September 1, 2015 digital transition deadline for LPTV and TV translator stations; (2) adopt rules to allow channel sharing by and between LPTV and TV translator stations; and (3) create a "digital-to-digital replacement translator" service for full power stations that experience losses in their pre-auction service areas. We also seek comment on: (1) our proposed use of the incentive auction optimization model to assist LPTV and TV translator stations displaced by the auction and repacking process to identify new channels; (2) whether to permit digital LPTV stations to operate analog FM radio-type services on an ancillary or supplementary basis; and (3) whether to eliminate the requirement in section 15.117(b) of our rules that TV receivers include analog tuners. We also invite input on any other measures we should consider to further mitigate the impact of the auction and repacking process on LPTV and TV translator stations.

While primarily focused on the future of the LPTV and TV translator services, the NPRM definitely includes some issues of interest to full-power TV stations as well, including the idea that repacking full-power stations may necessitate the construction of digital-to-digital translators to address situations where such stations "experience losses in their pre-auction service areas". The extent to which the FCC may create such losses is of course one of the issues currently on appeal before the courts, but such losses might also result from stations voluntarily moving from UHF to VHF channels in the auction, or moving from a High VHF to a Low VHF channel. The FCC proposes to permit such translators only where a loss of service has occurred, and to limit such translators to replicating, rather than extending, a station's prior coverage area.

Another interesting issue for which the FCC is seeking input in the NPRM is whether to allow LPTV and TV translator stations to channel-share with full-power and Class A TV stations. That issue, as well as the proposal to allow Channel 6 LPTV stations to provide an analog FM audio service as an ancillary service, will make this a particularly interesting proceeding likely to attract lots of comments.

The comment dates have not yet been set, but Comments will be due 30 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register, with Reply Comments due 15 days after that. Those operating LPTV and TV translator stations will no doubt be happy to see that the FCC is taking steps to "mitigate the potential impact of the incentive auction and the repacking process on LPTV and TV translator stations," but the many issues covered by the NPRM make clear that, for many of these stations, it will definitely be an uphill climb.

FCC Announces Freeze on LPTV Displacements and New Digital Replacement Translator Applications

Christine A. Reilly

Posted June 12, 2014

By Christine A. Reilly

Surprise, surprise, the FCC has instituted yet another application filing freeze! The FCC effectively said "enough is enough" and stopped accepting applications for LPTV channel displacements and new digital replacement translators.

Yesterday, the FCC released a Public Notice indicating that, effective June 11, 2014, the Media Bureau would cease to accept applications seeking new digital replacement translator stations and LPTV, TV translator, and Class A TV channel displacements. The FCC did provide that in certain "rare cases", a waiver of the freeze may be sought on a case-by-case basis, and that the Media Bureau will continue to process minor change, digital flash cut, and digital companion channel applications filed by existing LPTV and TV translator stations.

According to industry sources, there have been grumblings at the FCC that low power television broadcasters have been using the digital replacement translator and LPTV displacement processes to better position themselves from the fallout of the upcoming spectrum auction and subsequent channel repacking. That appears to be confirmed by the Public Notice, as it states that the freeze is necessary to "to protect the opportunity for stations displaced by the repacking of the television bands to obtain a new channel from the limited number of channels likely to be available for application after repacking...." Setting aside the freeze itself for a moment, it seems clear from this statement that the FCC has no illusions that there will be room in the repacked spectrum for all existing low power television stations.

While there have been myriad FCC application freezes over the years, they have been occurring with increasing frequency. From the radio perspective, absent a waiver, extraordinary circumstances, or an FCC-announced "filing window", all opportunities to seek a new radio license (full-power, low power FM or translator) have been quashed for some time now.

The first notable television freeze occurred in 1948 and lasted four years. The FCC instituted a freeze on all new analog television stations applications in 1996. In furtherance of the transition to digital television, the FCC instituted a freeze on changes to television channel allotments which lasted from 2004 to 2008. In 2010, the FCC froze LPTV and TV translator applications for major changes and new stations; a freeze which remains in effect today.

Yet another freeze on TV channel changes was imposed in 2011 in order to, among other things, "consider methodologies for repacking television channels to increase the efficiency of channel use." And as Scott Flick wrote here last year, still another television application freeze on full power and Class A modifications was launched on April 5, 2013. That freeze remains in effect and effectively cuts off all opportunities for existing full-power or Class A television stations to expand their signal contours to increase service to the public. The volume of application freezes has grown to such an extent that it is difficult to keep track of them all.

In terms of reasoning, yesterday's Public Notice indicated that since the DTV transition occurred five years ago, the impact of the instant freeze would be "minimal" since transmission and contour issues should have been addressed as part of, or generally following, that transition. The Notice proceeded to say that LPTV displacement and digital replacement applications were necessary after the DTV transition, and up to the FCC's April 2013 filing freeze, for purposes of resolving "technical problems" associated with the build-out of full-power DTV stations, but that since there have been no "changes" to those service areas because of the last freeze, there should be no need for LPTV channel displacements or digital replacement translators.

Left out in the cold by these cascading freezes are broadcast equipment manufacturers and tower crews. As previously noted by numerous broadcasters and the NAB, the FCC's frosty view of just about every form of station modification is effectively driving out of business the very vendors and equipment installers that are critical to implementing the FCC's planned channel repacking after the spectrum auction. As we learned during the DTV transition, the size and number of vendors and qualified installers of transmission and tower equipment is very limited and, given the skills required, can't be increased quickly. Driving these businesses to shrink for lack of modification projects in their now-frozen pipelines threatens to also leave the channel repacking out in the cold.

FCC Adopts Rules for the Broadcast Spectrum Auction

Carly A. Deckelboim

Posted May 15, 2014

By: Carly A. Deckelboim

Earlier today, the FCC held its monthly Open Meeting, where it adopted rules to implement the Broadcast Television Incentive Auction.You can watch a replay of the FCC's Open Meeting on the FCC's website.

Thus far, the FCC has released three documents relating to the actions it took today in this proceeding, as well as separate statements from four of the five commissioners, providing at least some initial guidance to affected parties: (1) a News Release, (2) a summary of upcoming proceedings, and (3) a staff summary of the Report & Order.

At the meeting, the commissioners noted that, when released, the Report and Order will contain a number of rule changes to implement the auction. The major takeaways are:

  • The reorganized 600 MHz Band will consist of paired uplink and downlink bands, with the uplink bands starting at channel 51 and expanding downwards, followed by a duplex gap and then the downlink band;
  • These bands will be comprised of five megahertz "building blocks", with the Commission contemplating variations in the amount of spectrum recovered from one market to the next, meaning that not all spectrum will be cleared on a nationwide basis, and in some markets, repacked broadcasters will be sharing spectrum with wireless providers in adjacent markets;
  • The FCC anticipates there will be at least one naturally occurring white space channel in each market for use after the auction by unlicensed devices and wireless microphones;
  • The auction will have a staged structure, with a reverse auction and forward auction component in each stage. In the reverse auction, broadcasters may voluntarily choose to relinquish some or all of their spectrum usage rights, and in the forward auction, wireless providers can bid on the relinquished spectrum;
  • In the reverse auction, participating broadcasters can agree to accept compensation for (1) relinquishing their channel, (2) sharing a channel with another broadcaster, or (3) moving from UHF to VHF (or moving from high VHF to low VHF);
  • The FCC will "score" stations (presumably based on population coverage, etc.) to set opening prices in the auction;
  • The FCC will use a descending clock format for the reverse auction, in which it will start with an opening bid and then reduce the amount offered for spectrum in each subsequent round until the amount of broadcast spectrum being offered drops to an amount consistent with what is being sought in the forward auction;
  • The auction will also incorporate "Dynamic Reserve Pricing", permitting the FCC to reduce the amount paid to a bidding station if it believes there was insufficient auction competition between stations in that market;
  • The rules will require repurposed spectrum to be cleared by specific dates to be set by the Media Bureau, which can, even with an extension, be no later than 39 months after the repacking process becomes effective;
  • The FCC will grandfather existing broadcast station combinations that would otherwise not comply with media ownership rules as a result of the auction; and
  • The FCC continues to intend to use its TVStudy software to determine whether a repacked station's population coverage will be reduced in the repacking process, despite NAB's earlier protests that the current version of the software would result in reduced coverage for nine out of ten stations in the country.
Finally, the FCC will be asking for public input on numerous additional issues, such as opening bid numbers, bid adjustment factors, bidding for aggregated markets in the forward auction, dealing with market variations, setting parameters for price changes from round to round, activity rules, and upfront payments and bidding eligibility. The FCC will consider in future proceedings ways to mitigate the impact of repacking on LPTV/TV translators, how to address interference between broadcast and wireless operations, and how best to facilitate the growth of "white spaces" devices in the unlicensed spectrum.

Although today's Open Meeting and these preliminary documents provide some guidance on many complex incentive auction issues, they only scratch the surface, and there are many blanks the FCC will need to fill in between now and the auction. One of those that broadcasters will be watching very carefully is how the Media Bureau will be handling reimbursement of stations' repacking expenses. That has turned out to be a very challenging issue in past FCC efforts at repurposing spectrum, and the fact that the amount set aside by Congress for reimbursement might well fall short of what is needed has many broadcasters concerned.

We will know more about this and many other issues when the Report and Order is released, hopefully in the next week or two, but the real answers are going to reveal themselves only very slowly over the next year or two. The FCC has to hope that they will still have broadcasters' attention by the time we reach that point.

Another Year Over and a New One Just Begun

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 17, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Around this time every year, you typically see an abundance of articles in the trades making predictions about what the FCC will do in the coming year. It has become such a rite of the new year that I've even joked about it in past posts.

This year, however, I have noticed much less predictive commentary about the FCC, and it isn't hard to understand why. 2014 is so far looking like a "to be continued" year, forcing FCC soothsayers to concede that it's hard to say precisely how 2014 will differ markedly from 2013 at the FCC.

For example, 2014 was originally supposed to be the Year of the Broadcast Spectrum Incentive Auction. However, after the confusion surrounding the federal Affordable Care Act website demonstrated that "set a deadline to launch and it will surely be figured out by then" might not be the optimal approach to complex government projects, Chairman Wheeler agreed with much of the broadcast industry that it will take more time to get such a complicated undertaking right. As a result, he announced last month that the auction is now likely a mid-2015 event. While buying health insurance is indeed complicated, it is ditch-digging compared to designing the Broadcast Spectrum Incentive Auction (official motto: "The Broadcast Spectrum Auction--Making quantum mechanics look easy since 2010").

Similarly, Chairman Wheeler also last month took media ownership proposals being considered internally at the FCC under the prior Chairman off the table in order to give a "fresh look" at the FCC's media ownership rules. By statute, the FCC is required to review its media ownership rules every four years and eliminate any that are no longer in the public interest. The tabled proposals were part of the still-in-process 2010 quadrennial review, increasing the likelihood that the 2010 proceeding will now be rolled into the 2014 quadrennial review (official motto: "It's 2014 already?").

So does this mean 2014 will be boring for media watchers? Not at all. First, one reason for the dearth of breathless predictions is the relatively recent arrival of Chairman Wheeler. A new Chairman can bring many surprises, and as he has succeeded so far in holding many of his cards close to his vest, it's too early to tell just what all may be on his 2014 wish list. What he will do in 2014 therefore remains more a matter of speculation than prediction, leading many prognosticators to hold back for the moment.

Second, even if 2014 ends up being a quiet year of incremental change at the FCC, there is plenty to keep things interesting on the media front outside of the FCC. First and foremost, last week's announcement that the Supreme Court is jumping into the Aereo fray ensures that there will be some dramatic developments in 2014. Similarly, the 2014 elections promise to be a significant event for many media outlets, both in terms of bringing political ad dollars through the door while affecting the political balance of a Congress that has promised a rewrite of the Communications Act of 1934 in the next few years.

While such events will create an interesting 2014 regardless of what the FCC has on its menu, it's meeting the daily deadlines that keeps media businesses going, and meeting the legal deadlines that keep broadcasters in particular operating. For example, while the state by state radio license renewal application filing cycle concludes in 2014, the TV renewal cycle continues on throughout this year and into 2015.

One way, however, that 2014 will differ from 2013 is that October 1, 2014 marks the every-three-years deadline for TV stations to send their must-carry/retransmission consent elections to cable and satellite carriers. Given the growing importance of retrans dollars for broadcasters, and the fact that, at least with regard to cable, a failure to make an election results in a default election of must-carry, these elections are critically important (in contrast, note that failure to send an election to DirecTV or Dish leads to the opposite result, a default election of retransmission consent, just to make it as confusing as possible).

To help broadcasters navigate the less-exciting but still critically important deadlines that keep their licenses intact, at the end of 2013 we published the 2014 edition of our annual Broadcasters' Calendar. It can be found on the right side of the CommLawCenter main page, as well as at the Communications Publications section of Pillsburylaw.com.

Also, to stay up to date on industry events, keep an eye on our main page Interactive Calendar, as we upload numerous 2014 industry events, including NAB shows, state broadcasters associations conventions, and Pillsbury seminars and webinars on a variety of communications-related subjects. Predicting may be more fun, but knowing your regulatory deadlines keeps the lights on. Regardless, as 2014 reveals itself, I have little doubt that there will be a lot to talk about, and make predictions about, here at CommLawCenter.

One More Piece of the TV Auction Puzzle

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted July 23, 2013

By Paul A. Cicelski

Late yesterday, the FCC released a public notice providing information on the repacking process that will follow the broadcast spectrum incentive auction. This is the FCC's second response to calls by a number of parties seeking greater transparency (and information in general) regarding the technical aspects of the repacking process, including the FCC's repacking model and modeling assumptions. The FCC anticipates that more pieces of the puzzle, including details about how bids will be selected, how channels will be assigned, and the associated algorithms, will be made public in the coming months.

Specifically, in conjunction with the public notice, the FCC has made available the following:

  1. an update to its TVStudy computer software (now version 1.2) and supporting data for determining the coverage area and population served by television stations using the methodology described in OET Bulletin 69. According to the FCC's public notice, the updated software operates in the same way as the prior version, but has an improved user interface and enhanced capabilities for station-to-station analysis;
  2. data about Canadian and Mexican television allotments and incumbent licensees in a format that can be readily used with the updated TVStudy software program; and
  3. descriptions of the analysis for "pre-calculating" which stations could be assigned to which channels in the repacking process, and which stations cannot operate on the same channels or adjacent channels, based on geographic issues. The software and data being provided contain preliminary assumptions necessary to perform the analysis. The Commission states that those assumptions are for illustrative purposes only and that the FCC has made no decision as to whether to adopt any of them.

While all additional information regarding the auction and repacking process is welcome, this most recent release appears incremental at best, and we have a long way to go before broadcasters or potential auction bidders will be able to accurately assess their options. Given the stakes, however, those who can decipher the FCC's auction tea leaves earliest, and most accurately, will be at an advantage in the months to come.

FCC Modernizes Its Experimental Licensing Rules

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted April 29, 2013

By Paul A. Cicelski

The FCC's revised rules for its Experimental Radio Services ("ERS") were published in today's Federal Register, and become effective on May 29, 2013 (except for several rules that contain new or modified information collection requirements, which require further approval by the Office of Management and Budget). These revised rules allow parties, including manufacturers, entrepreneurs, and students, to engage in a wide variety of experiments involving radio spectrum, including, for example, technical demonstrations, equipment testing, limited market studies, and development of radio techniques. The FCC's revisions streamline and modernize the ERS rules, allowing parties to more quickly develop new technologies and products for the marketplace.

One of the primary changes to the rules is the creation of three types of ERS licenses: (1) Program Licenses; (2) Compliance Testing Licenses; and (3) Medical Testing Licenses. An applicant for a license must demonstrate in its application that it meets the eligibility requirements, must provide a certification of radio frequency (RF) expertise or partner with another entity with such expertise, and must explain the purpose of its experiment. Each license has a term of five years and is renewable.

Under a Program License, the license holder is permitted to conduct an ongoing program of research and experimentation under a single authorization without having to obtain prior FCC consent for each distinct experiment or series of unrelated experiments, as would have been required under the FCC's prior rules. Eligibility is limited to colleges, universities, research laboratories, manufacturers of radio frequency equipment or end-user products with integrated radio frequency equipment, and medical research institutions. Authorized entities must provide a "stop buzzer" point of contact, identify the specifics of each proposed experiment in advance of the testing on a public web database established by the FCC, and post a report detailing the results of each experiment upon completion of the experiment (A "stop buzzer" point of contact is a person who can address interference concerns and cease all transmissions immediately if interference occurs).

A Compliance Testing License allows a test lab to conduct testing for FCC equipment authorizations. Such licenses are available to labs that are currently recognized for RF product testing as well as any other lab that the FCC finds has sufficient expertise to undertake such testing. Unlike a Program Licensee, a compliance testing licensee does not have to identify a "stop buzzer" point of contact, provide any notification period prior to testing, or file any narrative statement regarding test results. Testing is limited to those activities necessary for product certification.

The third type of experimental license is a Medical Testing License. This license allows an eligible entity to conduct clinical trials of medical devices (i.e., a device that uses RF wireless technology or communications functions for diagnosis, treatment, or patient monitoring). Only health care facilities (defined as hospitals and other establishments that offer services, facilities and beds for beyond a 24-hour period in rendering medical treatment, as well as institutions and organizations regularly engaged in providing medical services through clinics, public health facilities, and similar establishments, including government entities and agencies) are eligible for this type of experimental license. Medical devices tested under a Medical Testing License must comply with the FCC's Part 15, 18 and 95 rules. Authorized health care entities must provide a "stop buzzer" point of contact and also follow the same notice and reporting requirements as Program Licensees. A Medical Testing Licensee is required to file a yearly report with the FCC on the activity that has been performed under the license.

The FCC's other changes to its ERS rules include:

  • consolidating all of the experimental licensing rules into Part 5 of the FCC's Rules;
  • consolidating its rules regarding marketing of unauthorized devices;
  • allowing demonstrations in residential areas of devices not yet authorized, so long as the relevant spectrum licensee is working with the device manufacturer;
  • permitting, without an experimental license, the operation of devices not yet authorized, so long as the devices are operated as part of a trade show demonstration and at or below the maximum power level permitted for unlicensed devices under the FCC's Part 15 rules;
  • allowing more flexible product development and market trials;
  • standardizing and increasing the importation limit for devices that have not yet been authorized to 4,000 units; and
  • codifying the existing practice of allowing RF tests and experiments conducted within an anechoic chamber or Faraday cage without the need for obtaining an experimental license.
Parties interested in learning more about the FCC's revised ERS rules should contact their communications counsel for advice.

FCC Announces Immediate Freeze on TV Modification Applications

Scott R. Flick

Posted April 5, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

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.

Should the Entire TV Band Be Repurposed?

John K. Hane

Posted February 7, 2013

By John Hane

The engineers who worked heroically to push broadcasting across the digital threshold had barely caught up on their sleep before agitation for more change began to erupt. The National Broadband Plan concluded that the amount of over-the-air viewing doesn't justify the number of broadcast stations, and that the FCC could use incentive auctions to re-pack broadcasting into a smaller band of spectrum. Now incentive auctions are the law. This decade we will likely see more broadcast spectrum repurposed for mobile services and another "transition" as hundreds of broadcasters conform their facilities.

So what's the connection between incentive auctions and talk of a new technical standard? The FCC thinks we need more spectrum for mobile services -- in large part because of rising use of video on mobile devices. But the FCC's rules dictate a broadcast television technical standard that means much of the most popular video -- which is already available free-to-air -- can't be received by mobile devices. The FCC is right that spectrum best suited for mobile services should be useful for mobile services. So why stop with the highest frequency TV channels? If we're going to do all the work of another transition, why not open a path for consumers to access the entire TV band with mobile devices? Many of the same forward-looking broadcasters that championed 8-VSB are working with others on a new standard that incorporates next-generation transmission technologies, as an article in TVNewsCheck reported earlier today. ATSC 3.0 would be easily accessible on mobile devices and provide a much better indoor viewing experience as well. And it will be ready to deploy when incentive auction repacking takes place.

But will every broadcaster want to upgrade at the same time? And what about consumers? FCC rules require all broadcasters to use the same digital standard to ensure universality -- so every television can receive every broadcast signal. But not everybody thinks that's the best policy. Back in the 1990s, the FCC itself debated whether it should select one standard, approve several standards, or simply let the market work things out. It adopted the ATSC standard, but it also asked whether the requirement to use that standard should sunset after a critical mass of deployment was reached.

Nobody wants a television Babel. But what does universal access mean when people increasingly consume their video on-the-move and on devices that we don't think of as televisions? In my home near downtown Bethesda, Maryland, pretty close to many of the region's television towers, I can reliably receive only three stations, even with an attic-mounted antenna. I can't receive any broadcasts on any of my computers, tablets, or other mobile devices.

I love broadcast television, but in my case, it's difficult or impossible to use most of the time. Millions of other Americans either don't use over-the-air television directly, or use it less than they otherwise might, for similar reasons.

Continue reading "Should the Entire TV Band Be Repurposed?"

The FCC's Spectrum Incentive Auction NPRM: A Condensed and Abridged Version

Scott R. Flick

Posted October 22, 2012

By Scott R. Flick

In my last post, I discussed the FCC's mammoth NPRM asking for public comment on an immense number of issues relating to the planned spectrum incentive auctions. In particular, I noted the challenges faced by both the FCC and commenters in trying to cover so much ground on such complex issues in such a short time. One of the emails I received in response to that post was from an old pro in the broadcast industry who wrote that "I've been reviewing the NPRM for 12 days and haven't finished yet!"

Having heard that message from a number of people, the importance of the NPRM to a great many segments of the communications industry, and the inability of many of our clients to dedicate several weeks to perusing the NPRM, Paul Cicelski and I have drafted a highly condensed summary of the NPRM in a Pillsbury Client Advisory that may be found here. In condensing it, we were mindful of the quote, often attributed to Albert Einstein, that "everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." While an entirely sensible approach, it would have abbreviated the 205-page NPRM (including attachments) only marginally. So instead, we threw that bit of advice out the window and condensed our summary down to five pages, giving us an industry-leading 41:1 compression ratio.

As a result, the Advisory cannot contain the level of detail found in the NPRM itself (that's how you cut out 200 pages!), but our hope is that it will make the NPRM's content accessible to a much broader audience, particularly the many who will ultimately be affected by the FCC's various auction and repacking proposals. In addition to providing a relatively painless way for those interested to learn more about this proceeding, the Advisory should provide a road map for parties seeking to identify the issues that will most greatly affect them so that they can focus their attention on those specific aspects of the NPRM when preparing comments for the FCC.

Given that the volume of issues to be addressed in the NPRM is so great, and there is literally no way any individual party could cover them all, the best chance for a well-informed outcome in this proceeding is for the FCC to hear from a large number of commenters who, cumulatively, will hopefully touch on most of the key issues in their comments and reply comments. As a reminder, the comment deadline is December 21, 2012, with reply comments due on February 19, 2013. Whether a potential seller in the reverse spectrum auction, a potential buyer in the forward auction, or a television bystander that may be buffeted by the winds of repacking, now is the time to step up and make your voice heard, rather than merely grumbling over the next several years about how the process is unfolding.

A Spectral Incentive Auction?

Scott R. Flick

Posted October 12, 2012

By Scott R. Flick

Given that the FCC adopted its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to establish the parameters of its much-anticipated broadcast spectrum auctions on September 28, 2012, and released the text of that NPRM on October 2, 2012, you would think that the communications industry would now be buzzing over the details of the FCC's long-in-the-making plan. Instead, from many corners of the industry, there has been stunned silence; not because there were any real surprises in the NPRM, but because the NPRM made clear to those not previously involved in the process the sheer enormity of the tasks ahead.

Also feeding the industry's muted reaction is the fact that, because there were no surprises, the industry doesn't know much more now than it did before about how the auctions will be structured. Instead, we are left with many excellent but unanswered questions asked by the NPRM, leaving the auction rules and structure a very ethereal proposition. As the annual deluge of Halloween horror movies reminds us, people are afraid of ethereal entities, and are unlikely to visit the FCC's cabin in the woods (despite the "big money for spectrum" signs out front) until the FCC is able to remove the dark mystery from this undertaking.

On the one hand, the FCC's staff deserves immense credit for asking the right questions on what is unquestionably the most complex undertaking the FCC has ever attempted (it makes you long for the simple-by-comparison DTV transition, which only took 13 years to accomplish). On the other hand, asking the right questions meant producing a 140 page, 425 paragraph NPRM, along with an additional 65 pages of appendices and commissioner statements.

The NPRM is a densely packed document with numerous questions and issues raised for public comment in each paragraph. Part of the problem, however, is that in order to get the entire package of materials down to 205 pages total, some of the NPRM's questions had to be condensed so severely as to make it difficult to discern what precisely the FCC is asking about or proposing. As a result, you will note that a lot of the third-party summaries circulating are short on condensed narrative and long on direct quotes from the NPRM--often a sign that the person drafting the summary gave up on trying to figure out what the NPRM was trying to say, and decided to let the reader take a crack at it instead.

Comments on the NPRM are due on December 21, 2012, with Reply Comments due on February 19, 2013. While the FCC indicates that it intends to hold the spectrum auctions in 2014, keep in mind that once the Reply Comments are filed, if the FCC were able to resolve a paragraph's worth of issues each and every day the FCC is open for business after that date, it would resolve the final issues in October of 2014. It would then need to release an order adopting the final policies and rules, and begin the process of setting up the reverse auction (for broadcasters interested in releasing spectrum) and the forward auction (for those interested in purchasing that spectrum for wireless broadband). Completing that process before 2015 will be extremely challenging.

Even this understates the actual time that will be required for the FCC to have a shot at a successful auction. Critically important to the success of such auctions is providing adequate time for potential spectrum sellers and buyers to analyze the final rules and assets to be sold to determine if they are interested in participating and at what price. If the FCC wants to encourage participation, it will need to ensure that potential spectrum sellers and buyers have at least a number of months to assess their options under the final rules. Otherwise, it is likely that many who might participate will not have attained an adequate level of comfort in the process to participate, or at least not at the prices the FCC is hoping to see. In that case, they will elect to remain on the sidelines.

Given the number of moving parts and these related considerations (which ignore entirely the possibility of additional delay from court appeals of the eventual rules), a 2014 auction seems very optimistic unless the FCC's goal shifts from having a successful auction to just having any form of auction as soon as possible. While those already intent upon being a buyer or seller of spectrum would certainly prefer a fast auction since that means quicker access to spectrum and spectrum dollars and less competition for both, the FCC and the public have a vested interest in holding auctions with a broader definition of success (in terms of dollars to the treasury, less disruption of broadcast service, producing large enough swaths of spectrum to maximize spectrum efficiency, etc.).

This morning, the FCC announced an October 26, 2012 workshop focusing on broadcaster issues in the NPRM, so efforts at removing at least some of the mystery surrounding the auctions are already underway. Given that all television broadcasters will be affected by this process, whether through participation in the reverse auction or by being forced to modify their facilities in the subsequent spectrum repacking, it would be wise to participate in the workshop, which is also being streamed on the Internet.

And one last bit of good news: the workshop will be held at the Commission Meeting Room at FCC Headquarters in Washington, DC rather than at that cabin in the woods mentioned above. However, don't be surprised if there is still a "big money for spectrum" banner over the door when you get there.

FCC Adopts Equipment-Related Consent Decree With Guitar Manufacturer to the Tune of a Quarter Million Dollars

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted August 21, 2012

By Paul A. Cicelski

Last week the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a Consent Decree involving a "voluntary contribution" of more than a quarter of a million dollars by a well-known guitar manufacturer, Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, relating to claims of unauthorized marketing of bass amplifiers, pre-amplifiers, tuners, audio mixers, and wireless microphones. While one might be puzzled by the FCC's interest in regulating musical equipment, the fact is that these devices, like virtually all modern day products, incorporate digital circuitry and generate (intentionally or unintentionally) radio-frequency signals that can cause interference to other spectrum users. The FCC's action is a reminder to all types of businesses that digital devices are regulated and must comply with the FCC's Part 2 and Part 15 rules regarding equipment authorization, including certification, verification, and declarations of conformity.

The FCC's investigation into Fender's products began in June 2010, when the FCC sent the company a letter of inquiry. While the content of the letter is not publicly available, it appears that the FCC sought information about when Fender received equipment authorizations for certain products, the labeling of such products, and the information disclosed in the user manuals for those products.

Over the course of the next two years, Fender, through its legal counsel, submitted a number of filings responding to the FCC's inquiry, and executed tolling agreements that permitted the FCC to extend its investigation. Ultimately, Fender reached an agreement with the FCC terminating the investigation. In the agreement, Fender did not acknowledge any wrongdoing (nor did the FCC reach any such conclusion), but the company voluntarily agreed to contribute $265,000 to the U.S. Treasury and institute an internal program to ensure future compliance with the FCC's rules. While this is nowhere close to being the most expensive equipment-related contribution or fine the FCC has received or assessed for unlicensed devices (in one case the FCC assessed a $1 million dollar forfeiture), it does send a loud message to manufacturers and importers of almost all modern day electronic devices that the FCC polices its equipment authorization rules and treats potential violations seriously.

For an overview of the FCC's Part 2 and Part 15 rules, you can check out our Client Advisory on the subject.

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.

Death, Taxes and Voluntary Spectrum Auctions

Scott R. Flick

Posted May 2, 2012

By Scott R. Flick

The FCC created a stir in the broadcast community when, after proclaiming for more than a year that surrendering broadcast channels for the planned broadband spectrum auction would be entirely voluntary, it began to "volunteer" Class A stations it concluded had not complied with all FCC rules. I first raised this issue in a February post on the day the FCC released the first sixteen Orders to Show Cause demanding that the recipient Class A TV stations submit evidence as to why the FCC should not revoke their Class A status for infractions that would have previously drawn only a fine.

Loss of Class A status not only eliminates protection from being displaced by full power TV stations (or by a spectrum auction), but also disqualifies the station from sharing a post-auction channel with a full power station or seeking any compensation for its spectrum in the auction. Downgrading Class A stations to LPTV status therefore allows the FCC to sweep them aside involuntarily to clear spectrum for the auction, and avoid sharing the proceeds of the spectrum auction with that licensee.

It was therefore not too surprising when that initial batch of FCC orders was followed by dozens of subsequent FCC actions against Class A stations, some of which proposed substantial fines and indicated that the licensee had been earlier informed it could avoid a fine by notifying the FCC it wished to relinquish its Class A status.

Having put scores of stations on notice that their Class A status was either directly at risk or that they could avoid a fine by agreeing to relinquish Class A status, the FCC turned up the heat further this past week when it began issuing follow up orders revoking stations' Class A status. While the writing was already on the wall for many of these stations given the FCC's earlier actions against them, one of the orders offers a particularly disturbing insight into the determination with which the FCC is moving to thin the ranks of Class A stations (old FCC motto for Class A stations--"last bastion of independent voices in a consolidated TV world"; new FCC motto for Class A stations--"old and in the way").

Station KVHM is (or at least was) a Class A station that received a pair of investigatory letters from the FCC in late March and early August of 2011. According to the FCC, the letters noted that the station had failed to file required children's television reports and provided the licensee with thirty days to respond, making the first response due at the end of April 2011. However, as the FCC itself notes in the Order, the licensee, Humberto Lopez, died in May of 2011. According to his obituaries, Mr. Lopez, who owned multiple TV and radio stations and was an inductee of the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame, died "on May 16 after battling a long illness."

In the last few weeks of his life, he apparently didn't find time to respond to the FCC's March letter, and was certainly unable to respond to its August letter. His failure to respond led the FCC to issue a February 2012 Order to Show Cause demanding that Lopez demonstrate why his Class A status should not be revoked. When, not surprisingly, the licensee was unable to deliver that message from beyond the grave, the FCC issued last week's Order, stating "Lopez did not file a written statement in response to the Order to Show Cause, and, therefore, we deem him to have accepted the modification of the KVHM-LP license to low power television status." Talk about being tough on a licensee; the FCC demanded not just that Lopez rise from the grave to defend his Class A status, but that he do so in writing.

While it is easy enough to ridicule an FCC Order that is on its face so completely preposterous as to invite comparison with the worst cinematic portrayals of soulless bureaucracy, the real lesson of this case can be found by delving a bit deeper into the facts. On the FCC's side of the ledger, it is true that the first investigatory letter did arrive while the licensee was still alive, and that it was at least theoretically possible the licensee could have responded. Had the FCC's Order been based on this fact alone, rather than on the licensee's failure to respond long after his death to the 2012 Order to Show Cause, its action would have been hard-hearted, but perhaps defensible. The FCC could have argued that, given the licensee's failure to meet the original response deadline, his estate lacked the "clean hands" necessary to protest the loss of Class A status, and that the FCC was just playing the hand it was dealt. However, as it turns out, the FCC lacked clean hands as well.

Why, you may ask, did the licensee's estate not step up to oppose the Class A revocation? Apparently because it is still waiting for the FCC to grant the application to transfer control of the station from the deceased licensee to the licensee's estate (controlled by an Executor). Despite the fact that such post-death transfers are normally accorded nearly automatic grants, that application remains pending at the FCC since early November 2011. Worse, the apparent reason why the transfer application is hung up at the FCC is because the FCC has still not acted on the station's 2006 license renewal, which also remains pending. To be blunt, the licensee literally died waiting for the FCC to act on his license renewal application. While the FCC will often sit on a transfer application until the underlying station's license renewal is granted based on the theory that the "seller" shouldn't profit from the transfer of a station unless the FCC can first determine he was qualified to own it, the licensee here is beyond caring about such profit.

So in the fair world we like to think we live in, the FCC would have promptly granted the station's transfer application (and perhaps its license renewal application as well), transferring control of the station to the Executor of the licensee's estate. Without altering its timetable one iota, the FCC could then have proceeded to issue its February Order to Show Cause, and the Executor would have had a reasonable opportunity to try to defend the station's Class A status. Instead, in its apparent haste to clear "voluntary" spectrum for auction, the FCC cut all of these procedural corners, leaving Lopez's wife and (according to the obituary) twelve children with an asset of significantly diminished value, and no opportunity to seek their share of any spectrum auction proceeds.

What is particularly ironic is that the Lopez family is the archetype of the kind of licensee the FCC has argued will be interested in participating in the auction--a licensee that may no longer be as interested in running the station as in monetizing it to pay estate taxes and to split any remaining proceeds among the many heirs. The FCC has placed itself in the role of the cattle baron who dams up the stream, depriving his neighbors of water so that he can obtain their land for next to nothing (or in this case, nothing). If the FCC's thirst for broadcast spectrum has become so intense that it is willing to sacrifice fundamental fairness and "widows and orphans" to get it, all broadcasters need to be looking over their shoulders for the next regulatory lightning bolt encouraging them to also "volunteer" their spectrum. Like death and taxes, it appears the FCC is determined to make surrendering spectrum for the auction an unavoidable fact of life (and death).

A Reprieve--and a Lesson--for Class A TV Stations?

Scott R. Flick

Posted March 7, 2012

By Scott R. Flick

I wrote in February about a sudden deluge of nearly identical FCC decisions, all released on the same day, proposing to revoke the Class A status of sixteen LPTV stations for failure to timely file all of their Form 398 children's television reports. While I noted at the time that the affected licensees had done themselves no favors by apparently failing to respond to FCC letters of inquiry, the decisions were still somewhat surprising in that the FCC has traditionally fined Class A stations for rule violations rather than revoked their Class A status. Class A status is important because it provides LPTV stations with protection from being displaced by full-power TV stations, and is now more important than ever, as the recently enacted spectrum auction legislation allows Class A stations both the opportunity to participate in auction revenues, and protection from being eliminated in the broadcast spectrum repacking associated with the auction.

Given the peculiar timing of the FCC's decisions (just days after the spectrum auction legislation became law), the sudden shift from fines to Class A revocation, and the release of sixteen such decisions at the same time, the decisions raise the specter that the FCC may be moving to delete the Class A status of non-compliant stations in order to facilitate clearing broadcast spectrum as cheaply as possible in preparation for the newly-authorized wireless spectrum auction. Within a few days of my post, a number of trade publications picked up on this possibility as well. The result was a lot of Class A stations checking to make sure their regulatory house is in order, and a growing concern in the industry that these decisions might be the leading edge of an FCC effort to clear the way for recovering broadcast spectrum for the planned auction.

While that may still turn out to be the case, I was nonetheless at least somewhat relieved to see a trio of decisions released this morning by the FCC that are largely identical to the February decisions with one big exception--the FCC proposed fining the stations for failing to file all of their children's television reports rather than seeking to revoke their Class A status. Specifically, the FCC proposed fining two of the licensees $13,000 each, and the third licensee $26,000 (because it had two stations that failed to file all of their reports).

Each $13,000 fine consisted of $3000--the base fine for failing to file a required form--and an additional $10,000, which is the base fine for having such documents missing from a station's public file. While a $13,000 fine is painful, particularly for a low power station, loss of Class A status could be far more devastating for these stations, and for Class A stations in general. Setting aside spectrum auction considerations, buyers, lenders and investors will be hesitant to risk their money on Class A stations that could suddenly lose their Class A status, and shortly thereafter be displaced out of existence. Stated differently, those considering buying, lending to, or investing in Class A stations will want to do a thorough due diligence on such stations' rule compliance record before proceeding.

So why did the FCC propose fines for these stations while the sixteen stations in the February decisions were threatened with deletion of their Class A status? Although today's decisions and the February decisions are similar in many respects, there is one big distinction. Unlike the licensees in the February decisions, the licensees named in today's decisions promptly responded to the letters of inquiry sent by the FCC, and upon realizing that they had failed to file all of their children's television reports, belatedly completed and submitted those reports to the FCC. While that didn't stop the FCC from seeking to fine these stations, it does seem to have avoided a reexamination of their Class A status.

While the FCC's February decisions to pursue deletion of Class A status are still a worrisome development for all Class A stations, today's decisions thankfully shed some much needed light on when the FCC is likely to pursue that option, and when it will be satisfied with merely issuing a fine. As I noted in my earlier post, a licensee that fails to promptly respond to a letter from the FCC is living life dangerously, and today's decisions confirm that fact. As a result, Class A stations should continue to make sure that their regulatory house is in order, and if they receive a letter of inquiry from the FCC, should contact their lawyer immediately to timely put forth the best possible response to the FCC.