An Update on the DTV Spectrum Reorganization

While there is plenty of talk about disruptive technologies — the SDI-to-IP migration, for instance — that transition pales in comparison to the FCC’s repack of the DTV broadcast frequency spectrum. For a TV station, what could be more disruptive than having to relocate the entire operation to a different RF channel?

The recent 2016 IEEE Broadcast Symposium addressed this important issue in a presentation by Joe Davis, president, Chesapeake RF Consultants. This article is based on that presentation.

By the FCC's definition, the repack sounds straightforward - "a reorganization of television stations in the broadcast TV bands so that stations that remain on the air after the incentive auction occupy a smaller portion of the UHF band, thereby freeing up a portion of that band for new wireless service users.” However, for stations across the U.S. and Canada, the reality is anything but simple. The DTV repack is chock full of technical and regulatory issues – and several important developments have occurred recently that have significant implications for broadcasters.

In this article, we will look at three key aspects of the ongoing and highly complex DTV repack: the filing deadlines for repacked stations, how to apply for reimbursement for eligible expenses, and an update on the FCC’s phased repack implementation plan.

The filing deadline for repacked stations

At this writing (Nov. 1), the FCC has just concluded Stage 2 of the incentive auction at the 114 MHz clearing target, and bidding has just begun for the Stage 3 reverse auction at the 108 MHz clearing target. The outcome of the auctions will be the FCC’s Channel Reassignment Public Notice (PN), giving precise numbers and identities of stations that will need to move to new channels – together with their final channel numbers and power levels. At the time of the PN’s release (at which “t” for time equals zero), we’ll find out which stations are moving to shared channels, and which stations will cease to exist.

FCC deadlines are likely to be firm. Do not miss those that may impact your station.

FCC deadlines are likely to be firm. Do not miss those that may impact your station.

To the FCC’s credit, it will give the stations a heads-up before the release of the PN. Just prior to the auction conclusion, each station undergoing a repack will receive a confidential letter advising it of its new channel, which will provide additional time for planning.

Most stations will have three months following the beginning of the post-auction period (t+3 months) to file for their initial construction permits. Those filing applications must conform to the station’s parameters as laid out in the Channel Reassignment PN. In the application, each station will specify the technical facilities it proposes to employ to implement the new channel assignment. For stations that are involuntarily repacked, their eligible expenses are reimbursable, and they must make a separate filing specifying the estimated costs for channel relocation and how the station will approach repacking.

Post-auction optimization process

In assigning the new channel lineup, the FCC has identified four key priorities in the post-auction channel optimization process:

  • To keep stations that are not cleared on their existing channels.
  • To minimize aggregate interference experienced by any station.
  • To avoid reassignment of stations with extremely high relocation costs (especially in large markets).
  • To prioritize assignments to channel 5 in low VHF, and to avoid channel 14 as the low side of UHF 14 presents land-mobile interference issues.

No later than two months after the beginning of the post-auction period (t+2 months), stations can file for a waiver of the construction permit filing deadline, with a detailed explanation of why they can’t construct to their reassigned parameters. This is a very fuzzy area currently; the FCC has a lot of work to do to help stations understand how they might qualify for the waiver process. A station whose new assignment cannot be constructed for reasons beyond its control will receive a waiver and be treated as a “priority station” (see below).  

Near the end of the auction, the FCC is expected to release a reassignment PN describing several additional post-auction filing windows. The PN is expected to describe each window in detail along with priority criteria, processing guidelines, cut-off, and mutually exclusive resolution.

“Priority” Station Window. These stations have received a waiver of the “t + 3” filing deadline and will be first in line for altering/expanding their facilities and for filing for an alternate channel. Other priority stations are those that will receive a one-percent population loss from their baseline parameters due to incoming interference and/or terrain blockage. Priority stations will be able to expand their facilities for more power or to extend their directional antenna patterns. Priority stations are also eligible for full reimbursement of construction expenses.

Non-Priority” Station Window. At some undetermined time after the priority stations, the non-priority repacked stations can file to expand their facilities and request alternate channels. While the priority stations will be reimbursed for all expenses associated with their expansion facilities and/or alternate channels, non-priority stations will only be reimbursed for expenses directly tied to the replication facility (any incremental expenses will be on the station’s dime).

“Stays” These are stations that will not be repacked and will stay on their current channel. Some might have an opportunity to expand or relocate due to a different protection landscape, and others might have a practical reason for expansion that is tied to their involvement with a station that IS repacked. Maybe these stations already share an antenna, or share a site, and maybe there is an opportunity for them to consolidate sites. Stays are not able to file for anything that expands their contour until the non-priority window closes, and until channel substitution freezes are lifted.

LPTV Stations and Translators. After the first three windows close, the FCC will accept filings from several LPTV categories:

  • Displaced Digital Replacement Translators (DRTs) paired with full power stations.
  • Digital-to-Digital Replacement Translators (DTDRT). This is a new class of translators available to full-power repacked stations. These stations can file for additional translators if they will experience an area of loss, and if there is available spectrum in this window.
  • Displaced LPTV/Translators. This window is available to operating LPTV stations and translator stations that become displaced because of repacking. These stations will have a lower priority than the DRT and DTDRT proposals above.
  • Displaced Unbuilt LPTV/Translator. These stations can file for a replacement channel last. Their final construction deadline is no later than 51 months after the post-auction period begins. After these windows close, the FCC will take filings on a first-come, first-served basis.

The expense reimbursement process

A reimbursement fund of $1.75 billion has been set aside to cover construction/reconstruction and other costs for stations that are being involuntarily repacked. To facilitate the reimbursement process, the FCC has just posted a beta version of a web-based reimbursement application (Schedule 399, Form 2100). In its PN dated Oct. 4, the FCC is inviting broadcasters to log on, practice filling out the form, and provide feedback. 

Figure. 1. The antennas listing from the 2013 Widelity catalog.  (Click to enlarge).

Figure. 1. The antennas listing from the 2013 Widelity catalog. (Click to enlarge).

The beta version of the reimbursement form lists predetermined costs of equipment and services based on a cost schedule and catalog published by Widelity, Inc. in 2013. Given that transmission equipment costs have gone up considerably in the past three years, the FCC worked with Widelity to provide a 2016 version of the catalog on which the final Schedule 399, Form 2100 will be based.

The FCC has recently released the 2016 version of the catalog and is accepting comments on the categories and pricing. In addition to updated costs, the new Widelity catalog includes additional categories. A couple of examples are liquid-cooled high VHF transmitters and side-mount broadband antennas for possible interim use.  

Figure 2. Screen shot of the FCC’s beta reimbursement form.  (Click to enlarge).

Figure 2. Screen shot of the FCC’s beta reimbursement form. (Click to enlarge).

When a station files for reimbursement, it establishes its budget for a repack project. The station will be asked to provide a transition plan, and costs need to be reasonable and in line with those listed in the catalog.

The FCC post-auction transition-scheduling plan

Sometime in the not-so-distant future, the auctions will be complete, the relinquishing broadcasters will be paid, and the wireless providers will have plenty of new spectrums to work with. That is when the REAL work begins – the transitioning of the remaining TV stations to their new channels. The FCC has allotted 39 months for this transition; a period that many in the industry – including the NAB – feel is woefully inadequate.

On Sept. 30, the FCC released a PN outlining its proposed Transition Scheduling Plan, a proposed methodology for transitioning stations that will need to move. The goal is to provide a detailed schedule for specific stations to complete transition so that stations, tower crews, consulting engineers, and equipment manufacturers can manage planning, scheduling, and supply chains. The transition will require coordination on a massive scale, since each station move is connected to all other station moves by interference, resource management, geography, or all of the above.

Of particular concern are the daisy chains of stations that depend on the transition of other stations before they can make their own move. The FCC will identify daisy chains in the reassignment public notice, and stations will learn not only their new channel assignment but also which stations are in conflict and will need to be synchronized. 

Figure 3. The 796 interdependent stations in one FCC sample from 84 MHz.

Figure 3. The 796 interdependent stations in one FCC sample from 84 MHz.

The supply of antennas and the scheduling interval of tower work are also critical factors in the timing of the transition. A large quantity of equipment, including antennas, will need to be reconfigured or replaced at stations moving from affected channels to new ones. It is very likely that most transmitters will need replacement, especially those that are more than 10 years old. Here, the FCC has made many choices and assumptions about how quickly tower crews can perform their work, the availability of resources and equipment, and other factors that will affect the schedule. We are not convinced these assumptions are realistic, particularly because construction for large numbers of stations will need to proceed simultaneously.

Adding to the complexity are external factors such as weather conditions that could affect tower work, delayed zoning approvals for transmitter sites sitting on public or private land. All of these factors might create delays that will have a cascading effect on other stations in the daisy chain.

These concerns are reflected in the NAB’s written response to the FCC’s Sept. 30 PN regarding the Transition Scheduling Plan, as follows:

“. . . no station in television history has ever attempted to construct new facilities while more than one thousand other television stations are doing so simultaneously. While the record of this proceeding reflects disagreement concerning the level of resources available to complete the transition of repacked broadcasters to new channels, the scope of repacking should at least give the FCC pause in presuming that the time allowed for a single station to construct new facilities will prove adequate to move more than a thousand stations at once.” 1

The upshot

As the auction clears and the repack transition plan commences, broadcasters are in for some turbulent times over the next few years. Virtually no one in the industry believes the 39-month window is adequate for the transition, given the high number of station dependencies and the strain that will be placed on the supply chain of consulting engineers, transmitter installers, tower crews, and equipment manufacturers.

Fortunately, the FCC has begun to take a hard look at these issues; in particular, the documenting of station interdependencies. Had this analysis been done two or three years ago, the reassignment process and buildout period could have been based on more realistic expectations, which could have been baked into the channel repacking algorithm. For now, we’ll hope that an ongoing dialogue with the FCC and the continuous involvement of the industry will make the path smoother to a complete spectrum reassignment.

1“Comments of the National Association of Broadcasters,” Expanding the Economic and Innovation Opportunities of Spectrum Through Incentive Auctions, GN Docket No. 12-268, and Incentive Auction Task Force and Media Bureau Seek Comment on Post-Incentive Auction Transition Scheduling Plan, MB Docket No. 16-306, Oct. 28, 2016, p. 3

Joseph M. Davis is an IEEE BTS member and president of the consulting firm Chesapeake RF Consultants LLC.

Joseph M. Davis is an IEEE BTS member and president of the consulting firm Chesapeake RF Consultants LLC.

William T. Hayes is the president of IEEE Broadcast Technology Society and the director of engineering and technology for Iowa Public Television.

William T. Hayes is the president of IEEE Broadcast Technology Society and the director of engineering and technology for Iowa Public Television.

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