FCC to Vote on Broadcast Incentive Spectrum Auction Rules

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By Brandon Ross

Oct. 15 — The FCC plans to vote Oct. 22 on the rules for managing its highly anticipated 2016 incentive auction of broadcast TV spectrum waves to wireless operators.

Those rules will tell broadcasters when they will have to vacate their channels and wireless carriers when they can assume control of the airwaves.

The Federal Communications Commission announced the additional plans for their upcoming open meeting late Oct. 15, laying out three major areas in which it is looking to adopt new rules on the March 2016 auction.

First Item of Business

“The Commission will consider a Report and Order addressing when and in what areas 600 MHz Band wireless licensees will be deemed to ‘commence operations' for the purposes of establishing when the secondary and unlicensed users must cease operations and vacate the 600 MHz Band in those areas,” the Oct. 15 public notice said.

TV broadcasters operate in the 600 MHz band and many large stations will be selling their spectrum licenses for wireless operators, like Verizon and AT&T, to acquire during the auction. Small stations, often called low-power stations, like many local TV stations, foreign language stations or public broadcasting stations (PBS) will be forced to vacate, without compensation, their stations to clear space for wireless licensees to operate on the so-called white spaces of the 600 megahertz (MHz) spectrum band. The low-power stations aren't happy about that.

The FCC's November 2014 spectrum auction, known as the AWS (advanced wireless services) Auction, garnered a $41.3 billion profit for the U.S. government. It is widely considered a success by both Democrats and Republicans. But this incentive auction is the first in which the FCC will attempt to facilitate the sale of spectrum from one set of licensees to another. Spectrum is the finite resource of radio waves that allows communication between wireless devices, for example, mobile broadband and Bluetooth.

Second Item

“The Commission will consider a Third Report & Order and First Order on Reconsideration that adopts rules to govern inter-service interference between broadcast television stations and wireless licensees in the 600 MHz Band following the incentive auction and sets out protection criteria for television stations and wireless operations in the band,” the FCC release said.

Too much signal interference on spectrum bands between operators causes a range of issues from fuzzy broadcast channels to slow Internet connectivity and loading speeds, making something like viewing online videos nearly impossible on a bad connection. So, regulators around the world create spectrum rules to try to minimize signal interference.

Third Area to Be Considered

The FCC's third incentive auction order up for consideration will center on the FCC creating clearer rules for broadcasters regarding the allowance of channel sharing—multiple broadcasters using the same channel—for broadcasters interested in relinquishing their spectrum.

“The Commission will consider a Second Order on Reconsideration to provide additional flexibility to broadcasters interested in the incentive auction channel sharing option by clarifying that “back-up” channel sharing agreements are permitted under the rules and providing more time for successful incentive auction bidders to transition to shared facilities after the auction,” the FCC public notice said.

The FCC previously released a tentative agenda for its October meeting, but did not include the incentive auction items on that list. At the meeting, the agency will also consider proposals for new rules regarding foreign ownership policies and the next wave of mobile wireless spectrum, while also voting on whether to cap the rates on notoriously costly inmate calling services.

The last rules were issued for the auction in August—landmark incentive auction rules that will relocate some broadcasters that operate in the so-called duplex gap guard band—a band to help reduce interference.

Those new rules included a controversial proposal to place some broadcasters located in a handful of markets close to U.S. borders into the duplex gap guard band, as well as the uplink and downlink portion of spectrum in the 600 megahertz band.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Ross in Washington at bross@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com