With the FCC’s blessing and help from the wireless industry, two L.A.-area TV stations set to temporarily cohabit a channel

An essential component of the FCC’s long-discussed, still-in-development plan to free up TV spectrum for mobile broadband use is the concept of channel sharing by television stations. The idea, which the Commission has been officially studying for more than three years already, seems relatively straightforward. Thanks to the efficiency of digital operation, the standard 6 MHz channel allotted to each TV licensee can accommodate at least two separate stations. That being the case, in theory the Commission could re-take half of the spectrum currently occupied by TV operations simply by encouraging each station to move in with one other station on a shared channel.

Nearly two years ago the FCC took a preliminary step by announcing some initial minimal guidelines to govern such channel sharing. In the Incentive Auction Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, channel sharing was expressly identified as one option available to TV licensees in the spectrum re-packing effort. So the concept of channel sharing is more than just a glimmer in the FCC’s eye.

Despite its obvious commitment to the channel-sharing notion, though, the Commission has little idea of the feasibility or practicality of sharing. That’s mainly because no such arrangements have been authorized . . . until now.

Heeding the FCC’s invitation for volunteers, two L.A.-area stations have stepped up to the plate with a proposal that will allow for testing of at least some of the assumptions underlying the Commission’s Grand Plan. And knowing a good thing when it sees it, the FCC has approved the proposal.

Accordingly, Station KJLA (Channel 49, Ventura) will soon be moving in with noncommercial Station KLCS (Channel *41, Los Angeles) for the next six months (or less, if either or both stations decide to bail sooner). They’ll be testing:

  • The technical feasibility for multiplexing of signals on a single bitstream off-air, including a variety of content combinations (e.g., multiple HD streams, HD/SD stream mixes, etc.);  transmission in the H.264 video compression format in addition to the standard MPEG-2 format;
  • Ways to minimize problems with, and ensure accuracy in, the Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) system during shared operation;
  • A variety of sharing configurations “with replication during off-peak hours”. (According to the stations’ proposal, “KJLA will provide content to KLCS and KLCS will transmit the shared bitstream to determine the level of reception of the shared channel streams. During these tests, KLCS will continue to transmit its unaltered signal with all of its broadcast streams pursuant to its licensed operating parameters.”)
  • Implementation of full-time channel sharing (i.e., with KJLA remaining on-air, while KLCS transmits a shared bitstream with content from both stations using different virtual channels).

During the test, Channel 41 – the cozy channel that’s going to be shared – will be deemed to be “separately licensed” to both stations; both will be subject to all the usual rules and policies, although KLCS, as a noncommercial station, will be subject to NCE constraints while KJLA will not. (Not surprisingly, both stations have committed to complying with all applicable FCC’s rules.) They’ll also monitor their respective signals for any possible degradation.

Interestingly, according to the FCC, KJLA will continue operate “at its present location and under its current operation parameters” during the test.

Within six months of the end of the test (which the FCC refers to as the “Channel Sharing Pilot”), the stations will have to submit a report on the positives and negatives of the experiment.

Credit for coming up with the test goes not only to KLCS and KJLA, but also to CTIA – The Wireless Association®, which is providing “equipment and consulting services to facilitate the project”. CTIA’s members, of course, stand to benefit from quick and successful completion of the spectrum repacking process, so they clearly have an incentive to get the FCC, and broadcasters, comfortable with the channel sharing notion. While CTIA is technically not subject to any of the conditions imposed by the FCC’s test authorization, the letter setting out those conditions includes CTIA as an addressee. And the test proposal was transmitted to the FCC under a cover letter on CTIA stationery, following a meeting of representatives of the FCC, KJLA, KLCS and, yes, CTIA.

TV broadcasters should pay close attention to the test as it plays out. The test will provide an initial real world check on the desirability – indeed, the threshold viability – of signing onto a sharing arrangement. When the incentive auction and repacking process actually happen – and at this point there’s no reason to think that they are anything but inevitable – the knowledge gained from this initial toe-dip into the channel sharing experience could prove crucial.