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Perspectives on the FCC’s First Broadcast Spectrum Reallocation Rulemaking

More than two months after the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing preliminary steps to reallocate and reassign television broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband, the government machinery has finally announced comment deadlines: March 18 for initial comments and April 18 for replies. This is the first of several proceedings the FCC intends to pursue in its goal to repurpose broadcast spectrum.

The notice makes three proposals and asks a number of questions about each. It proposes:

  • To add new fixed and mobile service allocations to the TV bands and give them co-primary status;
  • To permit two or more stations to share a single 6 MHz channel; and
  • To take steps to improve the performance of broadcast signals in the VHF band.

Almost everyone interested in the topic of broadcast spectrum repurposing has a strong view, and opinions differ even among broadcasters. With station transactions at all time lows, some welcome the prospect of another possible exit. Those that don’t want to sell are worried about transition costs, being moved to less desirable channels, losing coverage area, or being coerced to sell by threat of hefty spectrum fees. Many broadcasters don’t know where they stand. For those, here are two things to keep in mind.

Timing. Regardless of what you read about timetables, it is extremely unlikely that auctions of any reclaimed broadcast spectrum will take place within the next three years. Congress has not authorized incentive auctions. Even if it does so this year, it will be later in the year, and the FCC will then have to adopt implementing rules. Only then can the FCC schedule an auction and can stations determine whether they want to sell. If Congress doesn’t permit incentive auctions, the FCC has other options, but those take time to develop too. Right now, there’s no coherent Plan B.
The FCC is breaking new ground here, and even without political pressures these are hard questions. They’ll take a lot of time and thought to resolve. Almost a year after the release of the National Broadband Plan, we still haven’t seen the model the FCC is using to figure out how broadcast spectrum can be cleared and stations repacked.

Apparently, the FCC is having a hard time finding daylight even without second-guessing by outsiders. Assuming everything goes smoothly for the FCC’s agenda, it’s conceivable auctions could take place in late 2014, with settlements and transition in 2015.
Eligibility and appeal. Most stations either won’t be eligible to participate in incentive auctions or the prospect won’t be very enticing. The FCC will almost certainly draw some bright lines. It might offer incentives only in the most densely populated areas, or it may preclude certain classes of stations from participating altogether. It might offer bigger incentives to higher band UHF stations, or it might offer better incentives to those stations, and it may preclude VHF or lower UHF stations from participating, or it may offer weaker incentives to them. Much depends on what the yet-unreleased “optimization” models show and what Congress does or does not authorize.
Among eligible stations, only a few are likely to find incentive payments to be attractive. At least today, even the most aggressive projections show spectrum shortages only in a handful of the most densely populated areas. It is not clear that the FCC will seek to clear broadcast spectrum in every market, and even if it does, auction proceeds (and thus, incentive payments) will be progressively lower as market size declines. In the 2007 auction of vacated TV spectrum, some markets commanded more than $3 per “MHz/pop” (one MHz covering one person), while others sold for about a tenth of that.
Except in the very largest markets, incentive payments probably won’t exceed the enterprise value of a profitable television station. Auction proceeds have to be split at least three ways. The U.S. Treasury will take its pound of flesh (Congress needs incentives too!) and transition costs will have to be paid. As an example, about two million people live in the Kansas City Metropolitan Statistical Area. Assuming a Kansas City station is credited with covering them all, auction of its 6 MHz channel at $1/MHz/pop would yield $12 million. A lot of this would be spent on whatever transition mechanism is used and the Treasury will keep a substantial portion of the remainder. Perhaps $1 million to $3 million would be available as an “incentive” payment to the station.
Of course, the FCC has time and means to create negative incentives. Stations that don’t sell may be moved to much less attractive channels, or forced to reduce power or coverage, or (if Congress approves) assessed substantial spectrum fees.
The FCC’s rulemaking notice doesn’t ask questions about these sorts of issues, but broadcasters should keep them in mind as they formulate their comments in response to the notice.