FCC officials and wireless, broadcast, and tower industry representatives today emphasized the importance of flexibility in the Commission’s procedures and the cooperation of all stakeholders in reaching the completion of the 39-month repacking of nearly 1,000 TV stations following the agency’s incentive auction.
However, while 84 megahertz of spectrum auctioned by the FCC in the auction is now available to wireless carriers, not all TV stations have relocated to their permanent facilities. Some are using temporary facilities, which don’t serve all viewers, an issue that the National Association of Broadcasters says must be addressed.
“Thirty-nine months ago, we set out an ambitious, 10-phase transition plan to make sure that 84 megahertz of spectrum repurposed by the incentive auction would be fully available for use by July 2020. Executing this plan would require the installation of new equipment on a massive scale, while solving for interference problems, seasonal constraints, and labor shortages,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in prepared remarks for a webinar this morning organized by the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research. “Many people said it couldn’t be done. But broadcasters, wireless carriers, tower workers, and FCC staff worked hard and worked together to do it. And even in the face of an unprecedented national emergency that effectively shut down our country, they got the job done on time. This is [a] huge win for consumers who will benefit from the deployment of new wireless services.”
Mr. Pai also stressed that the world’s first two-sided spectrum incentive auction “had never been done before. There was no roadmap. So it makes sense that the broadcast incentive auction is widely recognized as one of the most challenging undertakings in FCC history.”
Mr. Pai and other FCC officials noted that a handful of TV stations – six out of 987 – still have not transitioned “due to unforeseeable circumstances.” But they are scheduled to complete their transitions by Sept. 8, said Jean Kiddoo, chair of the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force. She called that “an amazing result when you consider that everyone recognized that 39 months was an incredibly aggressive schedule. And many, if not most of the industry, and many other observers, called it impossible – and that was … without factoring in a global pandemic.”
FCC officials also stressed that the six stations that have not transitioned are operating on TV spectrum or in the duplex gap and not on 600 MHz band spectrum licensed to wireless entities. They also said that 41 stations went off the air following the incentive auction.
Mr. Pai acknowledged that as many as “15% of repacked broadcasters are currently operating on interim facilities. In the coming weeks and months, they’ll need to move to their permanent facilities. The FCC will do whatever we can to help make that happen. We’ll also keep working with broadcasters to educate consumers who need to rescan their TVs so that they can still receive local stations that change channels.”
The FCC noted in a news release that agency staff will also continue to work with stations to distribute relocation expense reimbursements until the $2.75 billion TV Broadcaster Relocation Fund is closed out.
Hillary DeNigro, deputy chair of the Incentive Auction Task Force, said the flexibility that the FCC built into its 10-phase repacking framework was crucial. She said that the agency exercised that flexibility more than 500 times, including by allowing stations to operate on temporary channels, by permitting joint use of a single channel, and by authorizing stations to complete rebanding in later stages.
“It ended up that the program was flexible enough even to deal with the pandemic that was faced,” she said, noting that the FCC permitted 42 stations to finish their work in the 10th, rather than the ninth, phase due to delays caused by the pandemic.
Rick Kaplan, general counsel and executive vice president-legal and regulatory affairs for the National Association of Broadcasters, praised the FCC and other stakeholders for collaborating on the repacking, but he also noted that “the job’s not done.” He said that some TV stations are still not serving their full areas, which has left some viewers “disenfranchised.”
NAB President and Chief Executive Officer Gordon Smith highlighted that issue in a statement released today.
“NAB thanks the FCC staff for their flexibility in working with stations to facilitate transitions and grant extensions when possible. We are also grateful to Congress for allocating the additional funds needed to fully reimburse broadcasters for costs associated with these mandatory moves,” Mr. Smith said. “There is still much work to be done. To meet FCC deadlines, many stations have been required to operate on temporary facilities that do not serve all station viewers. NAB will continue to work with the FCC to ensure that these stations are made whole, and that affected viewers regain access to their local channels. In this uncertain time, it is vital that TV viewers have access to local news, entertainment and lifeline information.”
In videotaped remarks shown during today’s webinar, Rep. Greg Walden (R., Ore.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, noted that there were hiccups during the repacking transition, including the need for Congress to allocate an additional $1 billion in funding to reimburse low-power TV (LPTV), TV translator, and FM radio broadcast stations. But he also praised the efforts of the FCC.
“This was almost unprecedented in terms of complexity … but you pulled it off and you did a really great job,” Mr. Walden said.
Steve Sharkey, vice president-government affairs/engineering and technology for T-Mobile US, Inc., the top bidder in the incentive auction, noted that his company engaged in outreach to TV stations, equipment makers, and tower companies before the transition started to see what resources would be needed. “It was clear it was going to be a difficult process,” he added.
T-Mobile developed partnerships with manufacturers, tower crews, and others to help them bolster their resources, he said, noting, for example, that the carrier secured agreements to help more than 175 TV stations relocate early.
The auction ended in April 2017 (TR Daily, April 13, 2017), T-Mobile was granted its licenses in June, and it began deploying the spectrum five or six weeks later, Mr. Sharkey said, adding that by the end of 2017, it had about 1,000 sites activated. He said T-Mobile was able to double its capacity nationwide after the pandemic hit and the FCC approved grants of special temporary authority (STA) to use 600 MHz band spectrum licensed to other entities.
Mr. Kaplan called T-Mobile “the poster child” for deploying spectrum quickly, and he urged the FCC to consider how other carriers are using their frequencies. There is a considerable amount of cleared spectrum not being used, he added.
Peter Starke, VP-broadcast for American Tower Corp., said the transition normally would have taken more than five years to finish. Among the challenges were a limited number of qualified tower crews, weather, supply chain issues, the need for regulatory approvals, a federal government shutdown, and the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
He singled out a “pre-repack commitment” by stakeholders as being important, including early equipment purchases and staging. —Paul Kirby, [email protected]
MainStory: FCC FederalNews SpectrumAllocation WirelessDeployment
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