Despite – or, supposedly, because of – its own 2010 channel-sharing proposal, FCC summarily rejects similar 2008 approach advanced by ION

As part of its push to “repurpose” television broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband use, the FCC has, since 2010, been promoting the idea of channel sharing.  The idea is that two or more TV stations would share one 6 MHz broadcast channel, each having its own program stream.  One of the primary keys to enticing broadcasters to take the bait is that each station stream would have cable and satellite must-carry rights.

Attentive CommLawBlog readers may have thought that that proposal rang a bell – because (as we reported back in 2008) not only had somebody come up with the idea before, but that somebody had formally proposed its own license-sharing deal with features very similar to the approach the Commission is now pushing. 

In November, 2008, an assignment application (FCC Form 314) was filed proposing a “share-time” arrangement for a bunch of TV stations licensed to ION Media Networks.  A new company, Urban Television, LLC, would acquire “share-time licenses” permitting it to broadcast on the ION channel.  ION would continue to be the licensee of, and would continue to operate, its existing stations on the same channels.  (According to the application, Urban is owned 49% by ION and 51% by BET Founder Robert L. Johnson’s RLJ Companies.)

While the application was remarkably sparse on technical details – the contract between ION and RLJ was only two pages long, for crying out loud, and the summary of the transaction was only four (double-spaced, at that) – the basic idea boiled down to splitting up a single station’s 6 MHz channel into multiple, separately-licensed digital streams capable of accommodating  separately-owned TV stations.  As proposed by Urban Networks, each stream would be designated a “television station” and so would be entitled to the same mandatory cable and satellite carriage afforded to every full power station. Urban Networks sweetened the pot by offering a slew of new opportunities for minority entrepreneurs to participate in broadcast ownership and programming.

The broad strokes of Urban’s technical proposal were pretty close to the Commission’s repacking concept – separate licenses within a given 6 MHz channel, and cable and satellite carriage for everyone.

The FCC invited comments, and then proceeded to ignore the proposal even while advancing its own version of channel-sharing. 

But now, after a three-year wait, the Commission has summarily dismissed the Urban Networks applications.

Rather than pull the plug publicly, it did so in a letter (dated January 6, 2012), sent to the applicants but not officially released or broadly publicized.  According to the letter, the application involved “a division of time, not a division of spectrum”.  That’s an interesting – and arguably meaningless – distinction, since today’s digital TV signal is a commingled stream, where the separate .2 and .3 channels are created by interleaving data bits rather than partitioning a 6 MHz channel into independent smaller frequency blocks.  And, the FCC continued, “channel sharing arrangements quite different from that proposed here have become the subject of an outstanding Notice of Proposed Rule Making”, referring to the 2010 channel-sharing proposal.  The Commission, however, declined to say exactly how its proposal is different from ION’s or how any differences (whatever they were) might have affected its evaluation of the proposal.

It’s neither unusual nor unreasonable for the FCC to shy away from a novel proposal if a similar idea is already under study in a formal rulemaking proceeding. But when the Commission is struggling to entice broadcasters to operate jointly on a single TV channel, what message does the Commission send when it summarily flushes a very similar proposal down the drain?  Why not just fold the ultimate disposition of the ION/Urban proposal into the rulemaking?  Or how about granting that proposal on a temporary, experimental basis as a kind of “test-drive” for the channel-sharing approach?

In its own huffing and puffing about spectrum re-purposing, the Commission has spent considerable energy trying to allay broadcasters’ suspicions that channel-sharing might put them in a deep hole.  How are television licensees supposed to interpret the fact that, when given the chance (by the ION proposal) to demonstrate that channel-sharing will not put broadcasters behind the eight ball, the Commission has apparently blown the notion off without offering any explanation?