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FCC Freezes TV Station Channel Changes in Preparation for Spectrum Repacking

The FCC today announced a freeze on the acceptance of any petitions for rulemaking seeking to change a station’s assigned channel in the Post-Transition Table of DTV Allotments. While application freezes were once relatively rare at the FCC, they became quite common as a planning mechanism during the years when the FCC was creating a new Table of Allotments to initiate and complete the transition to digital television.

Given the FCC’s announced intent to begin reclaiming broadcast television spectrum for wireless broadband as part of the National Broadband Plan, and to then repack the remaining television stations into a smaller chunk of spectrum, today’s announcement was not a surprise. The Commission’s brief announcement stated that the freeze is necessary to “permit the Commission to evaluate its reallocation and repacking proposals and their impact on the Post-Transition Table of DTV Allotments….”

The freeze will put a stop to the steady migration of stations from the VHF to the UHF band, where reception is generally better and the opportunities for successful mobile DTV operations greater. While not discussed in the FCC’s announcement, proponents of transferring broadcast spectrum to wireless broadband have no interest in VHF spectrum, so each station that moves from the VHF band to the UHF band makes the FCC’s efforts to clear UHF spectrum for broadband that much more difficult. The FCC noted in its announcement that since the lifting of the last freeze in 2008, it has processed nearly 100 television channel changes, and that it therefore believes most stations interested in making a channel change have had sufficient time to do so. The FCC indicated that it would continue to process channel change requests filed before the new freeze commenced.

And so it begins. While the prospects for legislation to implement the National Broadband Plan’s broadcast spectrum incentive auctions remain murky, the FCC does not need the blessing of Congress in order to commence the process of spectrum repacking. Now well over a year old, the National Broadband Plan remains mostly that–a plan. Today’s freeze marks one of the first concrete steps by the FCC to implement at least some aspects of that plan. Setting aside the issue of whom the ultimate winners and losers in the spectrum debate will be, the painful and expensive process of implementing a new Table of Allotments for digital television is still far too fresh a memory for many broadcasters to want to be subjected to a similar process now.

At least with the transition to digital, broadcasters could see the benefits of enduring the difficult process in order to be able to garner the benefits of high definition programming, multicasting, and datacasting. Unfortunately, for broadcasters not interested in selling spectrum in an incentive auction, repacking means all pain and no gain. The best case scenario for a television broadcaster in a repacking is just to survive the disruption and distraction without losing signal coverage of viewers and cable headends. That doesn’t leave broadcasters with much light at the end of the tunnel to guide them through the difficult days ahead.