Proposed changes would pave the way for broadband occupation of TV bands

That muffled sound you might have heard on November 30 was the opening barrage in the long-anticipated struggle to revamp the TV spectrum. More than a mere warning shot but still well short of a coup de grâce, the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) is certain to shake the foundation of the television industry – an industry which is still re-building itself in the wake of the DTV Transition tsunami that crested in 2009.

The FCC’s goal in the NPRM is to “lay important groundwork” (in Chairman Genachowski’s words) toward the ultimate goal of permitting fixed and mobile broadband use in the TV band. Such use is thought by the Commission to be necessary to deal with the all-but-certain “spectrum crunch” which is expected to result from burgeoning mobile broadband demands. 

The FCC’s ultimate game plan appears to include coaxing existing TV broadcast licensees off their current channels in order to free up blocks of prime spectrum which would then be auctioned off for broadband use. While the Commission does not have the authority to “incentivize” broadcasters through, e.g., the sharing of the proceeds from such auctions, a couple of bills pending in Congress would provide such authority. The NPRM is intended to put the Commission in a position to move as quickly as possible toward effective spectrum repurposing if and when Congress gives it the power to share auction proceeds with displaced broadcasters.

The NPRM proposes three significant changes to the FCC’s rules.

First, the Commission is proposing to include fixed and mobile wireless services as potential uses in the VHF and UHF spectrum blocks currently reserved primarily for television. This involves a simple amendment to the Table of Frequency Allocations (the Table), which can be found at 47 C.F.R. §2.106. The Table is the official master list of authorized uses of the spectrum. Spread over more than 40 pages of the FCC rule book, it consists of a chart reflecting (a) all of the blocks into which the radio spectrum has been divided and (b) the specific permitted uses for each of those blocks. The Commission is proposing to include “Fixed" and "Mobile” as additional uses for the spectrum currently assigned for television services. 

This change by itself would not mean that broadband uses would automatically flood that spectrum. Rather, it would mean that the Commission could authorize such uses in that spectrum. Of course, the conventional wisdom is that the FCC will authorize such uses once it gets the rest of its ducks in a row. In order to facilitate that eventual process, the Commission is proposing to take this initial reallocation step now.

Second, the Commission is proposing rule changes to permit two television licensees in the same market to “share” one of their 6 MHz channels, thereby freeing the second channel for broadband uses. (Under such a sharing arrangement, two stations would share a single transmitting facility – although each station would be separately licensed and, in principle, independent of the other.) Historically, each TV station has had a full 6 MHz channel to use. Analog operation generally consumed the entire 6 MHz for a single program service, but the advent of DTV service has allowed multiple program streams by a single station over a single 6 MHz channel. The Commission apparently views this arrangement as inefficient. If every station were willing to share channels, that would free up 50% of the spectrum currently devoted to television – leaving that freed-up spectrum available for broadband.

Such channel-sharing would entail a number of complexities, many of which are addressed in the NPRM. Most obviously, the rules would have to be revised to permit such sharing in the first place. But beyond that, channel-sharing raises a host of questions. For example, as envisioned by the Commission, the proposed channel-sharing approach would provide TV licensees who agree to share channels the same MVPD carriage rights they currently hold. Licensees who agree to share channels would not be removed from cable, satellite, or other MVPD systems (e.g., FIOS) for helping out the government. 

The Commission is also seeking comment on other nitty-gritty details of sharing: Should commercial and noncommercial stations be permitted to share common facilities? Should a potential for loss of service by stations seeking to share transmission facilities be considered in determining whether that sharing proposal should be permitted? Ironically, on this last point the Commission suggests that its policy for dealing with service loss is one of flexibility, with the Commission happy to consider “any counterbalancing factors” a licensee might advance. But it doesn’t take a particularly long memory to recall a completely different Commission approach during the DTV Transition, when the Commission routinely denied minor changes to DTV facilities where more than 1% of the population would lose service.

Finally, the Commission is proposing rules to “maximize” the usage of the VHF spectrum. During the DTV Transition, many concluded that the VHF spectrum was not as well-suited for DTV use as UHF. As a result, most full-power stations elected to move to the UHF band to ensure uniform coverage within their service areas. But the UHF spectrum is particularly good for broadband operation, which means that the Commission would now like to wrangle as many TV stations back into the VHF band as possible.

To make such a move more palatable, the Commission is proposing VHF power increases and other revisions to improve the performance of indoor antennas. The goal is to try to offset any disadvantages, perceived or real, in VHF operation. In particular, the Commission is seeking comment on the adoption of the baseline standards for indoor antennas based on the 2009 ANSI/CEA-2032 standard, which establishes testing and measurement procedures for indoor antennas. By taking these steps, the Commission would squeeze more television stations back into the VHF spectrum bands, and free up a larger contiguous block of spectrum adjacent to the 700 MHz A Block which was previously auctioned for wireless uses.

The deadlines for comments and reply comments on the Commission’s various proposals will not be set until the NPRM is published in the Federal Register. Comments will be due 45 days after publication, reply comments will be due 75 days after publication.  Check back here for updates.

While the NPRM clearly sets the stage for TV re-purposing, it’s only the first step in what will likely be a complicated and contentious process. After all, the re-packing of large numbers of TV operations into a tighter chunk of the spectrum will present thorny issues, including the development of a New And Improved DTV Table of Allotments. 

Here again the recent DTV Transition experience provides a glimpse of things to come. Back in the early days of the DTV Transition, the adoption of the first DTV Table of Allotments led to many a battle over which channel would be assigned to which station. Such struggles will likely be even more problematic in a repacking process because that process contemplates a reduced number of channels overall. With fewer options from which to pick, we can expect considerable competition for channels which may be perceived as somehow “better”. How the Commission plans to manage, and resolve, such competition is still a mystery. 

Another concern about repacking: Thousands of Low Power TV stations, Class A TV stations, and television translators are operating on channels not included on the current DTV Table of Allotments. They will face certain displacement during this repacking effort.  While some of these stations may be able to take advantage of the proposed channel-sharing rules, or perhaps participate in the incentive auction, the devil will be in the details.

One thing that sticks in this author’s craw is the suggestion – expressly advanced by Chairman Genachowski and Commission Copps – that the television industry has been sloth-like in taking advantage of the digital spectrum.  Genachowski laments that some stations are not “seizing the opportunity to offer multicast streams or mobile TV”. Copps says that he “would have little interest” in a repacking process if only TV spectrum had been put to “positive use” through the provision of “public interest multi-casting”. 

Such perceptions conveniently miss several important points. 

First, the DTV Transition is still relatively recent. The transition required the acquisition of billions of dollars of new equipment by broadcasters, who also took extensive steps to educate the public on the new technology. They universally accepted, and rose to, that challenge. 

But to create a second or third program stream, a broadcaster has to create, in effect, a second or third station. To be sure, the transmission plant is already in place, but what about the studios, production facilities, staff – and advertising support – for the new program streams? These do not come pre-packaged, available for instant deployment. Quality programming requires extraordinary effort under any circumstance. That is even more the case here, where the new multi-cast streams would not be based on existing network fare (since most network programming is already committed and, thus, often not available for such additional streams).

Additionally, the development of such additional programming is expensive. Let’s not forget that the recession which has plagued the U.S. economy got its start in 2007 and hit hard in 2008, mere months before the government-mandated DTV Transition.

And if you’re talking about supposedly inefficient use of spectrum, what about the fact that other portions of the wireless spectrum for new wireless broadband services (700 MHz D block, for one) lay unused. The current state of multi-cast broadcast television may not meet the halcyon expectations of Copps, Genachowski and others, but at least the television industry built out a nationwide digital television service with the spectrum available to it.

To say that the television industry has somehow come up short and blown its chance is, in my own personal view, demonstrably wrong.   To rely on that misperception as justification for a new repacking initiative strikes me as regrettable.

Be that as it may, the battle call has sounded and the FCC has made its first move. It’s time to fall in and prepare for the long haul. This is likely to be an extended engagement.