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FCC Begins Proposed Reallocation of TV Broadcast Spectrum

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As we discussed in a post back in March, the FCC’s staff had just released its National Broadband Plan, which announced a controversial proposal to reclaim 120 MHz of spectrum from television broadcasters. Yesterday evening, the FCC moved this process forward by issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to open TV spectrum to use by fixed and mobile wireless facilities, including mobile broadband. We are in the process of preparing a detailed Client Advisory analyzing the FCC’s Notice for publication later today. However, for those that can’t wait, there are a number of big issues raised by the Notice.

First, the FCC proposes to give wireless broadband providers new primary allocations in the broadcast television spectrum. If adopted, this new rule would give fixed and mobile wireless users co-primary status throughout the entirety of the TV spectrum (as opposed to just in the upper-UHF band). Having primary status is important: it means non-primary services have to accept any interference from you, and you don’t have to worry about interference you cause to non-primary services (like low power television stations). If the FCC issues fixed and mobile wireless licenses in the TV band, and gives them co-primary status, then those wireless broadband providers would have the exact same interference protections as full-power TV stations enjoy today. As a result, full-power TV stations would be prevented from modifying their facilities if the modification would cause interference to a newly-licensed wireless operator. Regardless of which licensee was there “first”, co-primary status means that neither service can propose modified facilities if interference would be caused to the existing facilities of the other service.

Second, the FCC proposes to establish a legal framework allowing two or more broadcast stations, potentially including Class A and low power television stations, to voluntarily share a single six-megahertz channel. The Notice proposes to allow parties flexibility to decide for themselves how best to share the six-megahertz channel, and envisions more than two stations potentially sharing the same channel. According to the Notice, two sharing stations could each broadcast one primary HD stream, while more than two stations sharing a six-megahertz channel would each broadcast in Standard Definition (although note that the engineering community has been pretty vocal regarding losses in picture quality caused when two HD signals jockey for room in a single 6MHz channel). The FCC also proposes, regardless of the number of stations sharing a channel, that each of the full-power stations retain must-carry rights on cable and satellite systems for their primary program stream.

Finally, the Notice asks for comment on ways to improve VHF TV reception to increase the attractiveness of the VHF band to digital TV stations. The FCC recognizes that UHF spectrum is much more desirable for flexible digital TV service (as well as for mobile broadband) than VHF spectrum. In an effort to encourage increased use of VHF channels by digital broadcasters, the FCC asks for comment on proposals to increase the performance standards of indoor VHF antennas. The Notice also proposes to make technical changes to the FCC’s VHF service rules, including allowing VHF stations to operate at higher power than the rules currently permit. The FCC is also asking for any other ideas that might improve reception of digital VHF TV signals.

To say that these proceedings represent a big deal for broadcasters and wireless operators understates the meaning of both “big” and “deal”. These proceedings will lay out the framework for how all affected services will develop and interact with each other for the foreseeable future. They also represent the FCC’s continuing shift from dedicating spectrum to specific uses to allowing multiple services to share the same spectrum. While, if done correctly, shared spectrum use can increase spectrum efficiency, the etiquette of that sharing arrangement is a critical component of how the FCC, and the residents of that spectrum, proceed from here.

There is a maxim that “good fences make good neighbors.” In moving toward shared use, the FCC is proposing to tear down the fences separating spectrum users, and each of those users is about to learn more about their neighbors than they ever wanted to know. What rules the FCC adopts to protect each party’s flower bed from being trampled by its neighbors is going to be critically important. Keep a close eye on these proceedings, and on your flower bed.

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