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The First Domino Falls: Say Goodbye to Channel 51

The FCC this morning announced a “temporary” freeze on the filing and processing of applications for full power and low power television stations on Channel 51. The freeze was announced in response to a petition filed in March by CTIA – the Wireless Association and the Rural Cellular Association asking the FCC to take steps to “prevent further interference caused by TV broadcast stations on channel 51” to wireless broadband services in the Lower 700 MHz A Block. More specifically, the petition urged the FCC to “(1) revise its rules to prohibit future licensing of TV broadcast stations on channel 51, (2) implement freezes, effective immediately, on the acceptance, processing and grant of applications for new or modified broadcast facilities seeking to operate on channel 51, and (3) accelerate clearance of channel 51 where incumbent channel 51 broadcasters reach voluntary agreements to relocate to an alternate channel.”

What is odd about the FCC’s announcement, however, is that freezes are normally implemented to “lock down” the engineering database to permit the FCC to analyze various engineering solutions using a stable database. For example, during the DTV transition, the FCC issued numerous freezes as it attempted to engineer a DTV channel plan that would allow each full power station both a digital and an analog channel to operate during the transition. That task would have been much harder if the database had kept changing during that time.

Here, however, the FCC is not freezing Channel 51 applications to give it time to resolve a Channel 51 engineering issue. Instead, it is freezing Channel 51 applications to ostensibly give it time to determine whether to freeze Channel 51 applications. That is a novel use for a freeze, and seems to prejudge the ultimate question of whether the FCC should grant the underlying petition.

Of particular interest is the fact that today’s notice goes farther than just a freeze, as it “(1) announces a general freeze, effectively [sic] immediately, on the filing of new applications on channel 51 and the processing of pending applications on channel 51; (2) lifts the existing freeze as applied to, and will accept, petitions for rulemaking filed by full power television stations seeking to relocate from channel 51 pursuant to a voluntary relocation agreement; and (3) opens a 60-day window for parties with pending low power television station applications on channel 51 to amend their applications to request a voluntary channel assignment.”

Typically, when the FCC issues a freeze, it is only on the filing of new applications. As a matter of fairness, the FCC will normally process applications already on file when a freeze is announced since such an applicant has already expended its resources to file an application that was fully grantable before the freeze was announced. That makes this freeze unusual, as it freezes even pending applications, and in doing so, pretty much “temporarily” grants the wireless industry’s petition.

That last aspect is particularly odd. In contrast to a freeze designed to “lock in” the current engineering situation while options are assessed, the freeze notice does the opposite, specifically encouraging Channel 51 applicants and licensees to amend their applications and modify their facilities to change the current Channel 51 engineering terrain. In other words, it is a freeze that is not designed to lock in the current situation, but to actively change the current situation.

If it wasn’t already clear where the FCC is heading, establishing a 60-day “window” for low power applicants to clear off of Channel 51 in response to only a “temporary” freeze would make no sense if the FCC didn’t intend the freeze to be permanent. A low power station that fails to file a displacement application during those 60 days could well be deprived of a subsequent opportunity to amend when the FCC adopts a permanent Channel 51 freeze. Otherwise, there would be no point in limiting such applications to a 60-day window. In that regard, the assertion in the freeze notice that the FCC’s action is purely procedural and therefore “not subject to the notice and comment and effective date requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act” will be of little comfort to the low power applicant who waits to see what “permanent” action the FCC takes in this proceeding.

While the freeze does leave the FCC staff some wiggle room to grant waivers for modification applications by existing Channel 51 stations where necessary to maintain service to the public (thank you Media Bureau!), it is apparent that the FCC has decided to begin winding down use of Channel 51, even though the wireless entities that bid on the adjacent spectrum knew that they were subject to interference from Channel 51 stations when they bought it.

Broadcasters not affected by this freeze should derive little comfort from that fact. The FCC has made clear its desire to recover 120 MHz of contiguous broadcast spectrum, which means that all channels higher than 30 would disappear. This Channel 51 freeze merely establishes the template for those future FCC actions, and soon the bell could be tolling for far more than just Channel 51.