WCAX towers aerial view.
The broadcast television industry is facing yet another major transition: the reverse auction of television channel assignments followed by the repacking of spectrum in the 600MHz band to make room for mobile wireless services.
In this special four-part series—the first of many we’re planning on this and related topics—we will give an overview of this transformative event that is set to begin with an Incentive Auction—to be conducted by the FCC—slated for mid-to-late 2015.
According to the FCC’s latest Report & Order issued June 2, 2014, “In the Spectrum Act, Congress authorized the Commission to reorganize the UHF band so that the television stations that remain on the air after the Incentive Auction occupy a smaller portion of the band, thereby freeing up a portion of the band for new wireless uses.”
The Incentive Auction will be carried out in two phases:
- A Reverse Auction where broadcasters will have the opportunity to voluntarily return licensed broadcast spectrum usage rights in exchange for payments and
- A Forward Auction of new, flexible-use licenses where the highest bidders can acquire and use that freed up spectrum for mobile broadband services
Even though many of the vital details of this spectrum repacking and auction process are not yet known, broadcasters who believe they will be affected by this channel relocation process should be proactive and begin laying the groundwork for this transition.
UHF television broadcasters will have four options to consider:
- Exit the television business: Put your channel spectrum up for auction to the highest bidder and cash out of the market
- Opt for a Channel Sharing agreement with another station so that one of the two transmitters gets turned off and that spectrum is allocated for the repacking
- Move from a UHF channel assignment to a high band VHF channel, which involves rebuilding your transmitter site
- Elect to do nothing and remain in business as a UHF television station, which may still require changing channels
In many cases, except exiting the television business, stations will have a high probability of having to move to a new channel assignment as part of the repacking process.
A $1.75 billion fund—derived from the proceeds of the Incentive Auction—will reimburse broadcasters for their channel relocation expenses provided that they have upgraded their plant and submitted their invoices within the 36-month timeframe.
How does Spectrum Repacking Affect My Plant?
Your station will definitely be impacted if you’re in the upper range of the UHF band that is repurposed. And you have an especially high probability of being forced to move to another channel if your station is located in or near one of the twenty-five target markets for spectrum reclamation.
In either case, you’ll likely be moving to a channel in the lower portion of the remaining UHF television spectrum. If you believe spectrum repacking will affect you, you need to evaluate your antenna and tower site. Here’s how:
- Do an assessment of your tower to see whether or not it complies with the current EIA-222G standards.
- Determine how much additional wind loading your tower can withstand if a temporary antenna and transmission line must be added to the tower. The tower will likely have to support the existing antenna as well as the temporary new antenna—to keep your old and new channel on the air simultaneously—until the official switchover takes place.
- If you need a new antenna for a lower channel, (which is the most likely scenario), the size and weight of that antenna will increase. If the tower can’t support a bigger antenna, then you’ll need greater transmitter power to compensate for an antenna with lower gain.
- Evaluate new transmitters for the job. Look for state-of-the-art designs that offer high-energy efficiency, easy operation, frequency agility, a high level of redundancy and low maintenance.
- Determine what other transmitter hardware will be impacted, such as the channel mask filter, transmission line, and other components such as combiners or band stop filters.
- Determine if you have sufficient electrical power, air conditioning and other infrastructure to support your new transmitter.
This may be an opportunity to upgrade your plant from the Government’s $1.75 billion fund.
How to Estimate the Cost of Channel Relocation
If your station is likely to be affected by spectrum repacking, then we suggest that you contact your vendors and suppliers right away to get price quotes in writing for the key items you’re likely to need, including:
- Hardware and software for the new transmitter and tower site
- Labor, installation and testing services
- Hiring a consulting engineer to prepare the construction permit application
- Fees for construction, building and other permits
- Hiring electricians, engineers, tower crews and other trades
- Legal and accounting fees you will incur
Develop a timeline for how quickly products and services can be delivered and get commitments from vendor and suppliers to put you on their priority list. This is because, by our estimates, anywhere from a couple hundred to well over 500 DTV stations could be repacked and/or have to move.
The FCC Report and Order setting the rules for the auctions and repacking calls for a 3-month window following the close of the reverse auctions for stations to file for a construction permit (CP) to move to their new channel assignment. If a station is going to take advantage of the relocation funding, they must file a detailed cost estimate as part of the CP application.
Stations will be assigned a timeline based on the FCC’s evaluation of the move complexity. While the timeline is likely to be short, it will in no case be greater than 36 months from the time the CP is issued. This relatively tight timeframe could leave broadcasters competing for services, such as tower crews, broadcast engineering consultants, and systems integrators.
Overwhelming demand could create bottlenecks that put pressure on budgets and deadlines. That’s why we’re encouraging our customers to begin working on a proposal, financial plan and timeline, even though the full details of the spectrum repacking are not yet known.
The Report and Order call for commercial stations to receive 80% of their channel relocation costs upfront and non-commercial stations to receive 90% upfront, when the FCC issues the construction permit. But after the work is completed, broadcasters will need to provide documentation of their actual expenses, such as invoices, to receive the remaining reimbursement. If they’ve over-estimated costs, broadcasters will need to give back a portion of the advance. So spend this time gathering the best information you can to develop an accurate cost assessment and timeline.
Spectrum Repacking and Channel Relocation Assistance
Channel relocation will likely require new hardware, including an antenna, transmitter, channel mask filters as well as possible replacement of the transmission line. Because stations will be reimbursed for their expenses from the $1.75 billion fund allocated by Congress—and based on the proceeds of the Incentive Auction—this is an opportunity to upgrade to the latest transmitters.
Look for a vendor with transmitters that provide high-energy efficiency, easy operation, remote monitoring via IP, broadband operation allowing channel agility and requiring relatively little maintenance. In many cases, aging IOT or tube-type transmitters can be replaced with solid-state technology, giving broadcasters power capabilities and other benefits that weren’t available during the DTV transition.
One benefit of the spectrum shift is that many stations may be able to upgrade their transmitter with a new efficient, reliable solid-state model. GatesAir Maxiva VAX shown.
While the next-generation ATSC 3.0 standard is on a fast track toward adoption, it’s still in development. And there’s no telling if it will be ready in time for stations that are upgrading due to spectrum repacking.
ATSC 3.0 is vital to the future of DTV broadcasting because it facilitates Mobile DTV, a very appealing new business model for stations that want to reach viewers watching video on mobile devices as part of their multi-platform delivery. It also offers greater capacity for more bandwidth intensive program content, such as Ultra High-definition TV and additional multi-channel services.
But for right now, the most important thing is for broadcasters to get moving on developing a proposal for construction costs and timelines, getting price quotes in writing, and consulting broadcasting experts to get the information needed to maximize this spectrum repacking and channel relocation opportunity.
Because the spectrum repacking and channel relocation process is very dynamic, with many updates and clarifications expected over the next six to nine months, our hope is to keep readers informed about new developments along the way.
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