OET seeks comments on alternative to traditional OET-69 methodology.

The FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) wants to sharpen its pencil when it comes to predicting TV station coverage. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) doesn’t think that that’s a good idea – not just now, at least.

Who cares? You should, if you’re a full-service or Class A TV licensee about to be forced into deciding whether (and if so, how) you will participate in the incentive auction process currently being devised by the Commission.

OET has announced, pretty much out of the blue, that it has developed new software – dubbed TVStudy – which the Commission “plans to use in connection with” the incentive auctions. At issue is the way the FCC plans to utilize OET-69 in the implementation of the auction process.

OET-69 – real name: “OET Bulletin No. 69 Longley-Rice Methodology for Evaluating TV Coverage and Interference” – is, of course, the how-to guide developed by OET over the years for predicting, through use of the Longley-Rice propagation model, TV service coverage and the likelihood of interference. By a complex set of computerized calculations, which incorporate a detailed database of terrain variations, Longley-Rice facilitates “predictions of radio field strength at specific geographic points based on the elevation profile of terrain between the transmitter and each specific reception point.” Predictions generated through Longley-Rice are generally deemed to be more accurate than those produced by the Commission’s traditional methods. (Those traditional methods first relied on hand-cranked charts and tables; they later migrated to a relatively crude computerized method that produced only a statistical prediction of signal strength over a broad geographic area rather than at any individual location.)

The greater precision provided by OET-69 was central to the vast transition of the U.S. television industry from analog to digital, a process that stretched over decades and wrapped up in 2009. The currently authorized service areas of all full-service TV stations were determined, directly or otherwise, through operation of OET-69.

That’s important here because, in directing the Commission to conduct incentive auctions, Congress recognized that TV licensees who opted not to turn in their licenses – and who would thus be subject to possible channel reassignment – should be assured that, when the dust settles on the auction/reassignment process, they will still be able to serve the areas and populations they had previously been authorized to serve. Also, knowing with certainty what will await them post-auction could induce some licensees to participate in the auction.

If the method of predicting service areas and populations changes in mid-stream, stations could end up with less than they thought they would have once the re-packing process is completed. You may recall that a fixed reduction in service area for all stations was considered by the FCC at one time as a way to pack stations closer together, but Congress nixed that idea, instead directing that:

[i]n making any reassignments or reallocations . . ., the Commission shall make all reasonable efforts to preserve, as of the date of the enactment of this Act, the coverage area and population served of each broadcast television licensee, as determined using the methodology described in OET Bulletin 69 of the Office of Engineering and Technology of the Commission.

(Those are our italics, not Congress’s.) Congress seemed clearly to be saying that existing licensees should be entitled to keep their existing OET-69-determined service areas and populations.

But now OET has unveiled TVStudy – which the Commission “plans to use in connection with” the incentive auctions. According to OET, TVStudy, when compared with OET-69-related software, “runs much faster, provides greater accuracy in modeling and analysis, and is easier to use and more versatile”. Wow, what’s not to like about that?

Maybe a lot, if you’re a TV broadcaster.

Focus, please, on the notion of “greater accuracy in modeling and analysis”. That suggests that, by using TVStudy, the Commission could come up with service areas/populations different from – and possibly smaller than – those generated by the long-accepted OET-69 software. Smaller areas/pops calculations could diminish broadcasters’ expectations, whether they plan to (a) stay in the business (in which case their service areas might be reduced) or (b) participate in the auction (in which case the auction payment they could expect to receive might be reduced).

Suspicious folks may be wary of back-door, fine-print devices by which the FCC might be planning, on the QT, to disadvantage broadcasters in the auction process by achieving the reduced service areas that Congress rejected. Such folks might view the development and anticipated implementation of TVStudy with some skepticism. After all, when Congress mandated the use of OET-69, wouldn’t you think that they had a specific method in mind and not just the title of a program that the FCC could then change however it wanted?

That is not to say that OET is completely off-base in thinking that OET-69 might need some spiffing up. Some of the software underlying the current OET-69 process was developed three decades ago, which alone suggests that some updating might be useful. Moreover, as detailed in OET’s request for comments on TVStudy, other intervening developments – the availability of a more recent census and more accurate terrain data, determinations of errors in the existing software, to name a few – may also justify an updating effort. We can all stipulate that, in a perfect world, the Commission could probably improve on its existing OET-69 software, at least by updating the underlying data used in the calculations, and TVStudy might do just that in all the right ways.

But consider the timing. OET’s notice and request for comments about TVStudy was issued ten days after the deadline for comments on the overall incentive auction plan. Comments in response aren’t due to be filed until a couple of weeks after reply comments are due in the incentive auction proceeding. How can anyone reasonably be expected to comment on the incentive auction plan when an important element of that plan – i.e., the method to be used to calculate services areas and populations – is still up in the air?

And bear in mind, too, that OET-69 methodology in its current form was good enough to use in the DTV transition completed in 2009. (OET-69 has been around in one form or another since 1977. The current version of OET-69 is dated 2004.) If the underlying software is now unreliably old and flawed, how come the Commission didn’t update it for the DTV transition?

If the Commission plans to use TVStudy instead of its standard OET-69 approach when the auction rolls around, why didn’t the FCC include TVStudy as a component of the incentive auction NPRM? And while, with all due respect, we doubt that anyone on the Eighth Floor would ordinarily be capable of producing anything as technically complex as TVStudy – that’s why, after all, the Commission has an OET in the first place – why aren’t the details of TVStudy and its anticipated implementation being overseen by the full Commission (as opposed to OET) as part of the run-up to the incentive auctions?

There may be perfectly rational, arguably credible, answers to these questions, but it’s hard to see what they might be. The Commission has known since the passage of the Spectrum Act that OET-69 calculations would be central to the auction process. And don’t forget that, three years ago, in connection with the National Broadband Plan, the agency described an “Allotment Optimization Model” (AOM) it was then working to develop. Since the AOM (which was never released to the public) did not incorporate OET-69, it can’t be used for incentive auction purposes thanks to Congress’s specific insistence on OET-69 methodology. 

We’re guessing that the Commission has been looking at alternatives to the AOM, including the TVStudy idea, for a considerable time, probably since well before the issuance of the incentive auction NPRM. The fact that we’re only hearing about TVStudy now, and from OET rather than the Commission itself, raises legitimate concerns about what exactly the FCC’s game plan here might be.

The NAB has already weighed in, at least preliminarily. In response to OET’s request for comments, the NAB has argued that now is not the time to patch together a quick fix to OET-69 methodology. The NAB acknowledges that OET-69 might be improved on . . . just not now, with so many other loose ends still to be tied down relative to the incentive auctions.

Back in the day, accuracy in signal prediction was often a function of the sharpness of the pencil being used to draw contour lines on a paper map. The pencil was sharpened some when the first computerized contour calculations were introduced, although those used crude terrain data limited to a 2-10 mile donut shaped circle. OET-69 sharpened the pencil further by introducing more detailed data over a wider area. TVStudy may be just a modern-day means of sharpening the pencil even more. 

While, as a general rule, greater accuracy is the preferred course in most situations, there are times when the desirability of some arguably greater accuracy may be outweighed by other factors. Here, the Commission is apparently committed to conducting incentive auctions at the earliest possible time with maximum participation from broadcasters. Introducing uncertainty relative to an essential aspect of that participation – i.e., the calculation of relevant service areas and populations – could result in delay of the auctions and/or significantly reduced broadcaster participation. Further, Congress itself specified use of OET-69 without indicating any concern about possible inaccuracies. And finally, let’s not lose sight of the fact that we are talking about predictions of signal coverage. Neither OET-69 nor TVStudy will guarantee absolute precision in any event.

Those factors being the case, perhaps the Commission should stick with the pencil as it is.

Comments on TVStudy are currently due to be filed by March 21, 2013; reply comments are due by April 5, 2013.