AT&T Seeks ‘Realistic’ Schedule on Post-Auction Repacking

The Telecommunications Law Resource Center is the most comprehensive reference and news platform for communications law, covering broadcasting, cable, broadband, telephony and wireless;...

By Lydia Beyoud

Feb. 2 — AT&T Inc. may be willing to work with broadcasters and the Federal Communications Commission to extend or modify the 39-month post-incentive auction transition period for TV broadcast stations to vacate their current airwaves for wireless use, according to one of the company's top lobbyists.

The wireless carrier is worried about the challenges presented by the repacking process, said Joan Marsh, AT&T's vice president of federal regulatory affairs said during a panel at the Americas Spectrum Management Conference. “I don’t think most people understand what an enormous lift this is going to be,” she said.

By AT&T's calculations, about 1,200 TV stations may remain after the incentive auctions slated to kick off March 29. Of those, perhaps 30 percent may be able to stay in their current signal assignments, she said. That leaves about 850 TV stations that will need to move before wireless carriers can gain access to their spectrum winnings, which in AT&T's case could come to the tune of a multibillion-dollar bill if the company is a successful winning bidder, Marsh said.

“There's nothing in the record that supports the [39-month] number that was adopted by the FCC.”Joan Marsh, AT&T

AT&T is trying to get the most realistic view possible of the amount of time needed to make that transition, Marsh said. “We want to see an efficient, rational, effective transition plan. There's nothing in the record that supports the number that was adopted by the FCC,” she added.

“If we can get it done in 39 months, then we're all for it. But what I'm more interested in is embracing the challenge here in putting together a realistic but very efficient transition plan that puts all the incentives in place for the broadcasters to transition as quickly and efficiently as possible but gives us a realistic expectation of when we're going to gain access to the spectrum, and so we understand what we're facing,” she said.

Wireless Companies Eager

The position could put the company at odds with other members of the wireless industry who, as potentially winning bidders after the close of the auction later this year, will be eager to get their hands on the spectrum as soon as possible.

CTIA—The Wireless Association has frequently urged the FCC to keep broadcasters on track for the repacking period, when their station signals and physical infrastructure may have to be moved. By contrast, the National Association of Broadcasters has been urging the FCC and Congress to extend the repacking period.

Broadcasters are also struggling with the uncertainty of not yet knowing the scope of the repacking effort they will have to undertake after the auction, Patrick McFadden, NAB's vice president of spectrum policy, said during the panel.

“I don't think it should be a controversial proposition that it will take longer to remove 1,300 stations than it will to move just 300 stations; and yet we're in a position where we've had a deadline established without yet knowing the scope of the post-auction work,” he said.

There's little value in the FCC giving carriers a timeline expectation that carriers and other winning bidders have no reason to believe can be met, said McFadden.

Mock Auctions

While the number of TV stations to be cleared out of the 600 megahertz (MHz) band won't be known for several more months, both broadcasters and wireless and other forward auction participants will have a chance to participate in mock auctions in the spring, FCC Incentive Auction Task Force Chief Gary Epstein said.

The FCC expects to announce an initial spectrum clearing target to determine the new 600 MHz band plan toward the end of April, he said. Clock bidding rounds for the reverse auction for broadcasters to relinquish spectrum will begin in May, about a week after a reverse mock auction is completed, said Epstein. Ultimately, the entire auction is expected to close in the third quarter of 2016 provided the forward auction for license bidders reaches its clearing target and other conditions, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lydia Beyoud in Washington at lbeyoud@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine in Washington at kperine@bna.com