Ready for Repack?

Changing channels is expensive. At a minimum, it will require a new antenna. Who’s going to pay for it and when?

In the news business, it doesn’t take long to notice that it usually isn’t a good idea to be a topic in the news. Yet, in 2015 USA, the FCC and the future of TV broadcasting is a news story rapidly trending upward. The story can be summed up in three words: TV Spectrum Repack. The words garner about 80,000 results on Google and make some TV broadcasters giddy. 

Makers of transmitters, antennas, towers and transmission lines are anticipating repack “transition” activity that could be reminiscent of the DTV transition a dozen or so years ago. The problem is nobody knows which or how many stations will be affected until the auction is half over. Repack is an enigma in progress.

The 2010 National Broadband Plan introduced the idea of “incentive auctions.” In May 2014, the FCC adopted rules to implement the Broadcast Television Incentive Auction. It will be the first such auction ever attempted in the world. It’s an auction, so who knows much for certain until it’s over? To separate rumor from fact, all links in this article point to FCC.gov pages.

The original plan

The FCC’s own words explain the idea of the auction. “We expect it to enhance the ability of broadcasters who remain on the air to continue providing the public with diverse, local, free over-the-air television service.” The webpage goes on to say “In turn, this will accelerate the smartphone- and tablet-led mobile revolution, benefiting consumers and businesses throughout the country.”

Many consider the FCC's spectrum promises written in air and easily erased. Careful study of the proposal and a high tolerance for risk may be needed to get you through the process.

Many consider the FCC's spectrum promises written in air and easily erased. Careful study of the proposal and a high tolerance for risk may be needed to get you through the process.

The FCC summarizes the auctions as “The first ever incentive auction of television broadcast spectrum will permit television broadcasters to voluntarily go off the air, share their spectrum or move channels in exchange for receiving part of the proceeds from auctioning that spectrum to wireless providers to support 21st (sic) century wireless broadband needs.”

The website also states “Repacking involves reorganizing television stations in the broadcast television bands so that stations that remain on the air after the incentive auction occupy a smaller portion of the UHF bad (sic), thereby freeing up a portion of that band for new wireless services uses.”

TVStudy

On 30 June 2015, the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology released its final version (v 1.3.2) of its TVStudy software, to be used in the incentive auction. TVStudy is “a detailed summary of baseline coverage area and population served by each television station to be protected in the repacking process.” Database results covering all domestic TV stations as of 26 June 2015 are posted here in .PDF form.

The public notice is posted here. Further details are available on the Commission’s LEARN website under the Repacking Section. The public notice called for comments by 30 July 2015.

Under recent Congressional pressure, the FCC has delayed its vote on inventive auction rules until 6 Aug 2015. The "inventive" rules include auction structure, broadcast spectrum opening bid prices, spectrum-reserve set-asides for smaller bidders, and rules for identifying TV stations that will move to guard bands.

The FCC has taken years to develop the auction plan. If you haven't yet studied what's about to happen, don't further delay. Image courtesy lxbn.com

The FCC has taken years to develop the auction plan. If you haven't yet studied what's about to happen, don't further delay. Image courtesy lxbn.com

One plan, two auctions

Right now, the auction is scheduled to begin 29 March 2016, less than three weeks before NAB 2016 opens. Actually, there are two auctions, one being “Forward,” the other being “Reverse.” The "Reverse" process is explained in detail here. “The auction presents a once in a lifetime opportunity for broadcasters,” and is “wholly voluntary,” says the FCC.

Other than LPTV and TV translator stations, all TV broadcasters have four options to participate, depending on current assigned channel. Options are: Bid to give up a UHF channel and move to either a high or low VHF channel. Or, bid to relinquish a high VHF and move to a low VHF. Or, bid to give up current channel to share a channel with another broadcaster after the auction. Or, bid to give up the license, go off the air and open a frozen custard stand.

The "Forward" process is detailed here. The number and locations of licenses available in the forward auction will depend upon the results of the reverse auction. The concept of the forward auction is to convert broadcast channels into wireless licenses for mobile broadband providers.

The 600 MHz Band Plan

The plan consists of specific paired uplink and downlink bands to enable two-way communication. The bands are 5MHz “building blocks.” It incorporates technically reasonable guard bands, including a uniform duplex gap. The duplex gap is a special guard band used to separate uplink and downlink spectrum, to prevent harmful interference between licensed services.

The FCC authorizes the use of these guard bands for unlicensed use nationwide. At least one unused television white space channel in each market following the Incentive Auction will also be available for unlicensed devices as well as wireless microphone use. It also allows wireless microphone devices licensed to broadcast and cable programming entities to operate in a portion of the duplex gap on a licensed basis.

Reimbursement

When the auctions are over and the repacking process finished, “The FCC will reauthorize and relicense the facilities of the remaining broadcast television stations that receive new channel assignments in the repacking, or because they have won their auction bid to move to a different frequency band or to channel share.”

The Spectrum Act makes $1.75 billion available for reimbursements, to be paid within three years after the auction. The FCC is required to “Reimburse costs reasonably incurred by broadcast television licensees that are reassigned to new channels, as well as by multichannel video programming distributors (“MVPDs”) that incur costs in order to carry the signals of reassigned licensees.”

Not every station will see any money. And even if stations receive partial reimbursement, the money could be years in coming. Be careful in your early decisions and get lots of legal and engineering advice.

Not every station will see any money. And even if stations receive partial reimbursement, the money could be years in coming. Be careful in your early decisions and get lots of legal and engineering advice.

Not every station will qualify for reimbursement. Stations that move from UHF to VHF or stations that move to share a channel with another licensee will be expected to cover their own relocation expenses. Broadcasters assigned new channels in the repacking process that apply for and receive a flexible use waiver of the FCC's service rules also waive relocation reimbursement.

Your homework assignment

The transition rules state “All entities seeking reimbursement will be required to provide an estimate of their eligible channel relocation costs after the auction. Subject to timing constraints, the Media Bureau intends to issue NCE broadcasters initial allocations equivalent to up to 90% of their estimated costs eligible for reimbursement, and all other eligible broadcasters and MVPDs initial allocations equivalent to up to 80% of their estimated costs eligible for reimbursement. Prior to the end of the three-year reimbursement period, the Media Bureau will issue a final allocation, if appropriate, based on broadcasters’ and MVPDs’ actual documented costs.”

Further details of the post-auctions transition are here..

Channel sharing webinar rescheduled

The FCC originally scheduled a webinar on Channel Sharing for 22 July. It has been rescheduled for Thursday August 13, 2015 from 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm EST. Topics will include the revised channel sharing rules, FCC Channel Sharing Agreement requirements, the bidding process for licensees interested in channel sharing, and the post-auction licensing process. Participants will have an opportunity to submit questions during the webinar to learn@fcc.gov.

Click here for webinar details, web address and log on information.

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