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By Lydia Beyoud
April 19 — In a spectrum incentive auction noted for its complexity, how to plan for the post-auction repacking of broadcasters into lower channels to make way for wireless carriers could prove to be one the toughest challenges.
Wireless carriers including T-Mobile US Inc. and AT&T Inc. have suggested different variations of a regional repacking plan, but important details can’t be fleshed out until both industries know how many broadcasters will vacate which channels, and where those “holes” in spectrum occupancy are geographically—facts that won’t be known until near the end of—or after—the auction, broadcast engineer and consultant Dennis Wallace said April 19 at the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas.
The Federal Communications Commission kicked off the first-of-its-kind incentive auction on March 29. Broadcasters will have the option to surrender spectrum to the FCC and either go off the air or be relocated to lower channels or channel share.
The FCC will in turn auction an as-yet-unknown amount of spectrum—likely close to around 100 megahertz (MHz)—to bidders seeking to deploy wireless networks.
“It’s great to talk about a regional repack from a very high level,” but it is going to be difficult for the FCC and the industries to come up with a workable plan until the vacant channels are identified and people know where those holes fit into some of the most densely-occupied regions, such as the mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes corridors, Wallace said during a panel.
“We’re in a situation where we’ve got to plan something where we don’t really know what we’re planning for,” he said.
The so-called daisy chain effect is one of the key elements adding to the complexity of resolving the issue, panelists said.
In border regions and areas with high population density and multiple broadcasters, the daisy chain effect “could stretch on to impact many more stations throughout a region,” Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said before the panel.
“That’s why we can’t embrace an ‘every broadcaster for itself’ approach to repacking,” he said.
Understanding the pros and cons of different approaches to the repack are an important element of the work taking place now, said Steve Sharkey, T-Mobile vice president of government affairs.
T-Mobile has proposed dividing the country into eight regions and beginning a simultaneous repacking process in each region, working from the corners inward to resolve the daisy chain issue, Sharkey said.
AT&T looks at the issue in the way it thinks about how to transition network technologies, said Joan Marsh, AT&T vice president of federal regulatory issues. In that approach, AT&T focuses its resources within a given region until finished, and then moves on to another, Marsh said.
“It might make sense to start on the two coasts and work our way toward the middle,” but the wireless carrier remains open to whatever plan would be most efficient, Marsh said.
The FCC has encouraged auction stakeholders to put forward their best ideas for an efficient repacking.
Jay Adrick, an engineer and technology adviser to GatesAir, a broadcast transmitter supplier, said the FCC should hold a public repack summit to bring together representatives from the wireless, broadcast, service and equipment industries to formulate a plan together.
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