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The National Broadband Plan’s Other Shoe Drops… on LPTV Applicants

One of many questions persisting since the release of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan has been “what is the impact on low power television stations?” Officially, the NBP’s call for repurposing television broadcast spectrum was not to affect LPTV stations, as the NBP indicated that LPTV stations would not be required to participate in the spectrum repacking and reallocation proposed for full power television stations.

As we noted at the time, however, it was unclear how the NBP’s spectrum reallotment proposals could not have a substantial impact upon the LPTV service. When full power stations are repacked into fewer channels to make room for wireless broadband, the secondary status of LPTV stations seems to ensure that they will be squeezed out of existence by the repacking. The NBP’s sunny language regarding the future of LPTV service therefore appeared more about selling the plan politically than about actually addressing the reality of spectrum repacking.

Today, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum directing the heads of all Executive Departments and Agencies to cooperate in “unleashing” the wireless broadband revolution by working with the NTIA and FCC to free up the 500 MHz of additional spectrum envisioned by the NBP. Immediately after the President’s action, the FCC’s Media Bureau released a Public Notice slamming the door on a much-anticipated opportunity to file digital LPTV and Translator applications that was scheduled to begin on July 26, 2010.

The Media Bureau had announced this filing opportunity on June 29, 2009, almost a year ago to the day of today’s announcement rescinding it. The filing opportunity was to have been for those seeking authorizations to build new digital LPTV stations. It was announced just after the conclusion of the nationwide DTV transition and the channel-shifting by full power stations (and displacement of LPTV stations) that process entailed. Applicants that had been prevented from filing before could now examine this vastly changed spectrum landscape with an eye toward providing LPTV service in places and on channels not previously available. Applications were to be considered on a first come, first served basis. To prevent a potential deluge of applications, the Media Bureau broke the process into two steps. In the first step, the FCC began permitting the filing of digital LPTV applications in rural areas in August 2009. The second step was to permit such applications in all areas of the country beginning in January 2010. As mentioned above, that date was first delayed until July 2010, and now, indefinitely.

Today’s announcement that new LPTV applications will not be permitted in urban areas, at least until the spectrum rulemakings surrounding the National Broadband Plan are resolved, officially confirms that the LPTV service is indeed going to be affected by the NBP’s thirst for broadcast spectrum. In a nod to that future reality, the Media Bureau also announced that the FCC will allow existing analog LPTV stations to apply for companion digital channels. While that may at first seem contrary to the goal of clearing broadcast spectrum, the purpose is to encourage the transition of the LPTV service to digital, which will ultimately allow it to be packed into less spectrum. However, even the transition of LPTV service into digital format is not likely to clear the amount of television spectrum envisioned by the NBP. As a result, if today’s action dropped the proverbial shoe on applicants for new LPTV stations, there likely will be one more shoe to drop… on existing LPTV stations.