Broadcasters Say Up to 210 Full-Power TV Stations Would Go Dark Under FCC Plan

Keep up with the latest developments and legal issues in the telecommunications and emerging technology sectors, with exclusive access to a comprehensive collection of telecommunications law news,...

As many as 210 full-power TV stations in 86 markets would be forced off the air under the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan recommendation to reclaim 120 megahertz of broadcast TV spectrum for future mobile broadband uses, according to a new analysis by the National Association of Broadcasters.

The association detailed the analysis at a news briefing as President Obama and congressional leaders continued to discuss a debt ceiling/deficit reduction package, which could incorporate legislation authorizing the FCC to hold voluntary “incentive” auctions of spectrum, in which television broadcasters, who license spectrum through the commission, could voluntarily release some of it back to the government in exchange for a share of the proceeds when it is auctioned.

The latest Congressional Budget Office score of such a bill (S. 911), sponsored by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), estimates that incentive auctions could help reduce the federal deficit by $6.5 billion between 2012 and 2021.

“If there are broadcasters that want to go out of business, they should be at liberty to volunteer,” Gordon Smith, president of the NAB, told reporters at the news briefing July 25. “With these facts—the facts of physics—we're simply trying to point out the trade-offs and how important it is that policymakers fully understand the consequences of the trade-off between free, local, emergency services, and live video as opposed to more spectrum for wireless broadband.”

“Their [the wireless industry's] uses are not illegitimate,” Smith added. “We're just simply saying there's a finite resource called spectrum.”

Smith acknowledged that the timing of the release of the analysis coincides with recent developments on Capitol Hill.

Debt Ceiling Crisis Lends Urgency to Issue.

“If [legislation] moves along, there's lots of opportunities for us to raise these factual issues of physics and to strike the best possible deal that we can for the future of broadband and broadcast,” Smith said. “But if we're part of the debt ceiling negotiations, time is a little bit more truncated and we do think that once you take another bite at broadcasting, policymakers should understand what could be lost in exchange for what could be gained. Time is of the essence for us to raise these issues.”

Smith said any legislation or debt ceiling/deficit reduction package should cover the costs of channel relocation and the “preservation of innovation that was part of the promise of the analog-to-digital transition.”

In its new analysis, the NAB estimates that between 900 to 1,200 TV stations would have to change channels as a result of “repacking”—or squeezing remaining stations into a smaller band—which could result in a temporary service disruption for viewers.

Under legislation in both the Senate and House, the return of channels to the FCC would be voluntary, but a repacking would not. According to the NAB, the cost to TV broadcasters choosing not to participate in incentive auctions—those that would be repacked—would be $2.5 billion.

Among the likely expenses incurred by full-power stations are new transmitters ($750,000), new antenna and transmission lines ($200,000-$750,000), new filters ($100,000-$300,000), new combiners ($100,000-$300,000), and reinforced towers or new towers to handle a larger antenna ($200,000-$1.8 million), the NAB said.

In all, the association predicts that 672 of the 1,735 full-power TV stations in the country would have to be “cleared” from channels 31-51 to accommodate the FCC's proposal to reclaim 120 MHz of spectrum from broadcasters. During the digital TV transition two years ago, only 174 stations were cleared from channels 52-69 and forced to move to a new channel.

Assuming the FCC is able to recover the entire 120 MHz of spectrum from broadcasters, 210 full-power TV stations would have to go off the air. But if 84 MHz is reallocated for mobile broadband, as stipulated in Rockefeller's S. 911, 108 stations would be impacted; if 60 MHz is reallocated, 79 would be impacted; and if 30 MHz is reallocated, 54 stations would be affected, the NAB said.

Smith: FCC ‘Modeling’ Withheld.

In part, Smith said the NAB analysis is meant to educate lawmakers and the public, since the modeling for spectrum reallocation has been “withheld from us.”

“Broadcasters want to trust, but we have a duty to verify,” he said. “That's why we're running these models, because no one else is sharing the models that are being run. The lawmakers are owed the facts as they take votes.”

In a paper published last June by the FCC, the agency unveiled a model—referred to as the Allotment Optimization Model, or AOM—to pinpoint how many stations in which markets could participate voluntarily in incentive auctions with “minimal possible impact on service areas and consumers.”

The FCC believes the model will allow the agency to optimize channel assignments in a “much faster, more accurate, and more user-friendly way than is currently possible.”

An FCC spokesman told BNA in an e-mailed statement that if Congress authorizes the commission to hold incentive auctions, it will “complete work on a model that would help conduct the auction and then put it out for public comment.”

Wireless Group Blasts ‘Scare Tactic.'

CTIA-The Wireless Association was quick to criticize the NAB analysis, calling it a “scare tactic.”

“NAB's study misses the fact that an incentive auction will be market-driven and voluntary,” the spokesman said. “Our proposal will not shut down hundreds of stations; it will open up massive innovation and investment. It has twin benefits: it will help broadcasters interested in participating and unleash much needed spectrum—a key ingredient to meeting the demands of the mobile revolution. Rather then engage in scare tactics, we urge NAB to work with us to achieve our shared legislative objectives to maintain a strong over-the-air broadcasting service.”

“We also want to remind broadcasters of two key points in all of the incentive auction discussions, as well as in each of the legislative discussion drafts,” said CTIA's vice president, Chris Guttman-McCabe. “First, participation in the auction is voluntary. Second, repacking costs will be reimbursed. NAB's study confirms that even under their analysis, spectrum can be moved voluntarily to its highest and best use, billions can be raised for the United States treasury and free over-the-air broadcast services continue.”

While supporting incentive auctions that are “truly voluntary,” the National Association of Broadcasters fears the FCC's proposals to reallocate spectrum could stunt broadcasters' plans to make more innovative use of the airwaves, such as transmitting high-definition signals, “multicasting” multiple channels, and delivering mobile TV to phones, laptops, and tablet computers.

By Paul Barbagallo

Request Tech & Telecom on Bloomberg Law